Moral Arguments For and Against Lottery


Lottery is a game in which people buy tickets for a chance to win a prize. The prize is usually money or goods. The term “lottery” can also be used to describe any process whose outcome depends on luck or chance, such as the stock market. The history of lotteries dates back at least to the 15th century, when towns in the Low Countries began to hold public lotteries to raise funds for town walls and fortifications.

One of the primary arguments in favor of state lotteries is that they allow states to raise revenue without increasing taxes or reducing other public programs. This is a particularly attractive argument during times of economic stress, when the prospect of raising taxes or cutting public programs may be especially unpopular. However, research shows that the popularity of lotteries is not necessarily tied to the state’s actual financial condition. Even in times of relative fiscal stability, lotteries receive broad public support.

Another important argument in favor of lotteries is that they help to promote good behavior and civic virtue. This is particularly true for state-run lotteries, which typically use their proceeds to fund a variety of public and charitable purposes. In this way, they can serve a dual purpose: They can encourage good behavior and civic virtue, while at the same time helping to alleviate pressing social problems.

Because lottery profits are earned by selling tickets, state lotteries must rely on advertising to attract potential customers. This requires a significant investment of resources, which must be balanced against the state’s interest in minimizing its exposure to bad publicity and public health risks. In addition, because lotteries are run as businesses with a focus on maximizing revenues, their advertising necessarily emphasizes the monetary value of winning. This can have negative effects on poor and problem gamblers, and it can put lotteries at cross-purposes with the general public’s concerns about the prevalence of gambling.

Regardless of the moral issues, most states continue to operate lotteries. Lottery operators develop extensive constituencies, including convenience store owners (who are the usual vendors for lottery games); ticket suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in states where a portion of lottery revenue is earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the extra income).

There are several popular moral arguments against state lotteries. One attack focuses on the notion of voluntary taxation, which critics contend is not really a boon for society because it disproportionately burdens those who are less able to pay—much like regressive taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. Other attacks focus on the tendency of lottery players to spend excessive amounts of money in pursuit of illusory chances, and on the fact that, even when they win, it often has little impact on their lives. These attacks have led some commentators to call for the elimination of state lotteries.