Which Is the Greater Sin?

April 4, 2005

As the debate for a state-operated lottery in North Carolina intensifies, one rationale by certain lawmakers in favor of the measure contends: "If you think the lottery is sinful, it's more sinful not to educate our children." This approach to morality can be extremely dangerous. It's essentially utilitarian, which erroneously argues the morally correct position in any given situation is the one that produces the greatest balance of benefits over the harms affected. In other words, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

In Calculating Consequences: The Utilitarian Approach to Ethics, Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez say that "[t]he principle of utilitarianism can be traced to the writings of Jeremy Bentham, who lived in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Bentham, a legal reformer, sought an objective basis that would provide a publicly acceptable norm for determining what kinds of laws England should enact. He believed the most promising way of reaching such an agreement was to choose that policy that would bring about the greatest net benefits to society once the harms had been taken into account. His motto, a familiar one now, was 'the greatest good for the greatest number.'"

The problem, however, with the utilitarian approach to morality is that it creates situations of gross injustice. It marginalizes certain people, sacrificing them for what is presumed to be a better end for the majority.

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It was the utilitarian approach to morality that Neville Chamberlain employed when he signed the Munich Pact with Hitler in 1938. In the allusion of attaining "peace in our time," Chamberlain sacrificed the people of Czechoslovakia to German conquest.

It was the utilitarian approach to morality that directed Nazi doctors to perform horrific experiments on Jews at Birkenau, Dachau, and Auschwitz during World War II. For the sake of the Third Reich, Jews were frozen to death, tested with drugs, put into pressure chambers, and sterilized.

It was the utilitarian approach to morality that medical scientists employed in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. For approximately four decades, impoverished, uneducated black men in Macon County, Alabama, were used as subjects in a project designed to study the effects of syphilis. Despite the fact penicillin was available at the time and was known to be successful in the treatment of syphilis, the subjects were left untreated.

Gilbert Meilaender in The Weekly Standard contends the testing on the Tuskegee men was rationalized by arguing "the poverty, illiteracy, and race of these men meant that, even if the research were not undertaken, they almost surely would not have gotten treatment. The circumstances of their lives destined them to suffer from and perhaps die of complications resulting from syphilis." So, why not profit from the suffering?

Interestingly, it is this same approach to morality that some lawmakers in North Carolina now utilize to whitewash the evils of enacting a state-operated lottery. Yes, legislators know lotteries exploit the poor and uneducated. They are cognizant of the fact that its various forms of advertising sell a false sense of hope that manipulates these people. Yes, lawmakers understand a state-operated lottery would create more than 300,000 compulsive gamblers in the Tar Heel State. Yes, they understand that lotteries cannot succeed without compulsive gamblers and that 10 percent of those who play the lottery are compulsive gamblers and account for 50 percent of the money wagered. Yes, they understand that of compulsive gamblers surveyed 22 percent divorced because of their gambling habit, 40 percent had lost or quit a job due to gambling, 49 percent stole from work to pay their gambling debts, 63 percent had contemplated suicide, and 79 percent said they wanted to die. But, you see, none of that really matters because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few -- the education of North Carolina's children, they say, is at stake!!!

Besides, they add, people are going to gamble anyway. Gaming is a juggernaut that can't be stopped. North Carolina is surrounded by states with lotteries, causing the state to lose some revenue. Why not make the best of the situation? If the state gets into the gambling business, it will be capitalizing on the weaknesses of a few -- but it's for the children, right? There's really nothing so bad about that. Wrong!!! The end doesn't justify the means!!!

William G. Wells has written: "'The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few' is just another way of saying 'individuals aren't very important.' Jesus strongly disagreed. This is clear in His parable about the Shepherd who left 99 safe in the fold to go and find the one lost sheep."

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying those who argue for a state-operated lottery for education in North Carolina are the Neville Chamberlains, Nazi doctors, and Tuskegee researchers of the world. I am simply saying we need to slow down and think again. The moral premise currently being exercised by some in favor of the lottery sets a dangerous precedent. It has its appeal, but it also creates a terrible injustice for an entire segment of our society. Moreover, it can have its ugly spin-offs that lead to even greater evils.

In his classic 1967 sermon, Where Do We Go from Here?, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., argues that the worst of sins is when we "thingify" people -- when we make people into things to exploit, manipulate, and use. For those lawmakers in North Carolina who feel the lottery is needed to deal with an even greater evil -- the state's lack of educational resources -- I hope they wouldn't succumb to the temptation to "thingify" those that would be adversely hurt by such public policy. As they consider what they should do, perhaps another of King's admonitions from the same sermon would be appropriate: "[L]et us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way."

Rev. Mark H. Creech ( is the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. Information regarding compulsive gambling was taken from resources provided by the North Carolina Family Policy Council; Charles Clotfelter and Philip Cook, Selling Hope, p. 241; and a report to the Senate, July 31, 1995, by Senator Paul Simon.

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