Acton Institute Powerblog

Lotteries and Merit

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One of my favorite industries to criticize is the state-run lottery business.

Philosopher William F. Vallicella writes the following: “Your chances of a significant win are next-to-nil. But suppose you win, and suppose you manage to not have your life destroyed by your ‘good fortune.’ The winnings are arguably ill-gotten gains. The money was extracted via false advertising from ignorant rubes and is being transferred via a chance mechanism to someone who has done nothing to deserve it” (HT: the evangelical outpost).

One could of course argue that the winner did take the superficially meritorious action of risking a small amount of money for the potential for a huge reward. Lottery players do at least have to “opt-in.” Perhaps that’s the action that accrues some semblance of desert.

But then again, if Vallicella is right about the nature of the system and its state-sponsored advertising, in the larger sense participation in such a corrupt industry might overshadow any meritorious action.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that in modern life characterized by the lack of meaning,

One gambles with the future. Lotteries and gambling, which consume an inconceivable amount of money and often the daily bread of the worker, seek the improbable chance of luck in the future. The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking.

Add to those effects government sponsorship and promotion, and you have a pretty foul mix.

The John Locke Foundation recently published a report linking lotteries to high poverty and high unemployment in North Carolina counties. See the case of Jack Whittaker for someone whose ruin was occasioned by the influx of great wealth.

Even so, philosopher David Schmidtz expresses a way in which the “merit” of lotteries shouldn’t be accrued to the actions leading up to the windfall, but rather following it. Speaking of what he calls transitive reciprocity in his recent book, Elements of Justice, Schmidtz writes,

Having received an unearned windfall, we are in debt. The moral scales are out of balance. The canonical way to restore a measure of balance is to return the favor to our benefactor, as per symmetrical reciprocity. However, the canonical way is not the only way. Another way is to pass the favor on, as per transitive reciprocity. Transitive reciprocity is less about returning a favor and more about honoring it – doing justice to it. Passing the favor on may not repay an original benefactor, but it can be a way of giving thanks (83).

Schmidtz leaves us with a picture of the lottery winner as one who has inherited a responsibility to act in an attitude of thankfulness and gratitude, passing the favor on to others.

I like that.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.

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