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Question 198: May a state legislator support casino gambling to get tax revenue?

I am a member of a state legislature. Proposals have been introduced at the last three sessions to legalize, license, and tax casino gambling—that is, gambling establishments operated as profit-making businesses. So far, no such proposal has made it out of committee, but this year it looks as though one will come to the floor, and I will have to take a position.

The main argument for licensing casino gambling is the revenue we could gain by taxing the casinos’ net receipts. A secondary benefit would likely be some increase in the tourism this state heavily depends on—and, even if it didn’t increase, casino gambling would at least keep us competitive with states that already have it. Since average income here is not high, and would be considerably lower except for the people who move here to retire, most members wish to minimize the inevitable impact on our less affluent citizens. For that reason, casinos would be licensed only in the three counties with the largest retiree population and in major tourist centers, where the majority of the gamblers will be wealthy citizens and visitors who can well afford their losses—which will account for most of the casinos’ profit and tax revenue

In past years, there has been some opposition to these proposals by people who oppose gambling as absolutely immoral. As a Catholic, I know I need not take that stand, but I do see various disadvantages and would like to adopt a position I can defend as reasonable.


This question concerns formal cooperation in scandal. People with good reasons for gambling need not risk much money; those who gamble significant amounts usually violate a duty to use their money in some other way. Seeking profit, casino operators intend this misuse of money, which is at least venially sinful. In doing so, they at least wrongly accept some patrons’ mortally sinful gambling. So, casino operators scandalize many patrons—that is, lead them into sin, and legislators who support legalization of casino gambling to raise revenue and/or attract tourists formally cooperate in this scandal.

The reply could be along the following lines:

As the Catholic Church’s teaching and practice make clear, gambling is not absolutely immoral, and in particular instances people can gamble innocently. Still, the Church also teaches that several factors can make gambling seriously immoral (see CCC, 2413). Taking these factors into account, I believe you should oppose licensing casino gambling and think that you can make a cogent case against it.

An important part of that case will of course be to show the disadvantages of licensing that already concern you. Casinos operating as profit-making businesses inevitably bring with them undesirable secondary businesses and criminal elements, which exploit casino patrons and cater to their vices.430 Excessive gambling at the casinos by some citizens also leads to an increase in crime and other social problems, such as suicide, family breakdown, and poverty. Moreover, at least some, and perhaps most, of the money spent on casino gambling would otherwise be spent on goods and services provided by other businesses in your state. Gambling by the state’s residents surely will reduce their other spending, and, though some nonresidents who otherwise would not visit your state will come to gamble, the casinos will divert some money tourists would have spent at other establishments in your state.

The preceding outline of bad consequences must be filled in with detailed evidence, but I shall not try to gather it. Do your best to see to it that the committee does so.431 Perhaps many members of the legislature already anticipate the problems, and their desire to prevent them at least partly explains past opposition and the current proposal’s provisions limiting casino gambling to major tourist centers and three counties with large retiree populations. However, if the bad effects are not acknowledged, investigating the experience of other states that have licensed casinos will make clear what your state must expect.

My contribution to the case against legalizing and licensing casino gambling is to argue that any legislator who supports it to gain tax revenue and/or attract tourists intends—and so is morally responsible for—immoral gambling. Though some of your colleagues will not be moved by this argument, I think you and others who are conscientious will find it convincing, and your principled opposition to casino gambling might be sufficient to tip the balance against it.

When chosen for a good reason and engaged in virtuously, gambling can serve its purpose even if the amount risked is quite small (see LCL, 818–19). By contrast, people who gamble significant amounts of money often have no basic human good in view, and are motivated by mere emotion and the hope of getting something for nothing. Those who risk large amounts of money gambling almost always should use it for other purposes. Those who have only as much money as they need to meet their own genuine needs and those of their dependents should use it for that purpose; those affluent enough to have substantial surplus funds should use them to meet others’ needs (see LCL, 780–82, 789–92, 800–806, 811–14).

Casino operators intend to maximize their profits and make every effort to exploit the weaknesses of potential patrons and motivate patrons to gamble large amounts. If all patrons gambled virtuously, the amounts gambled often would be so little that the operators hardly could achieve their end. Therefore, as a necessary means to the profits they seek, the operators intend at least venially sinful gambling, and in intending this they also foresee and at least accept any mortally sinful gambling that will occur. Intending that others sin venially, however, is itself wrong. No foreseen bad side effect of wrongdoing can be accepted rightly. So, casino operators cannot rightly accept any mortally sinful gambling. Therefore, they do a grave wrong of scandal, if not by intending that some of their patrons sin gravely, at least by intending that some sin venially and then wrongly accepting the more serious sins some will commit.

Since licensing casino gambling will lead to various problems for the state, the measure would have little or no support were it not for anticipated benefits. Though legislators might vote for a measure licensing casino gambling for other reasons, such as political pressures, those who support the legislation surely will intend that the state obtain the benefits that would come from taxes and/or tourists; they therefore will intend that the casinos have taxable receipts and attract tourists to gamble. Thus, anyone supporting a measure to license casino gambling shares the operators’ intention to attract people to gamble and to collect the money they will lose. But as we have seen, in intending that, casino operators commit a grave wrong of scandal. Consequently, legislators who support licensing casino gambling also commit a grave wrong of scandal. In doing so, moreover, they corrupt the people rather than serve their true interests.

Some no doubt will argue that licensing casinos to obtain tax revenue is no different from taxing tobacco and alcoholic beverages, licensing establishments where alcohol is sold, and operating state liquor stores. They will point out that alcoholic beverages are widely abused and tobacco is deadly to many users and harmful to virtually all. Still, hardly anyone objects to the state’s involvement with alcohol and tobacco. Therefore, they will conclude, nobody should object on moral grounds to licensing casino gambling.

If that argument were sound, it would not follow that the state should license casino gambling but that it should change its stance toward alcohol and tobacco. But the cases are not analogous, and the argument is unsound. Those who supported proposals to involve the state with alcohol and tobacco need not have intended to obtain tax revenue deriving from the abuse of these substances. Many people drink moderately, and the harmful effects of typical tobacco use became clear only in the 1960s. Faced with the fact that alcohol and tobacco were being sold and used, legislators may have intended to raise revenue from their legitimate use, while also trying to limit their abuse, partly by means of taxes and state liquor stores. By contrast, legislators support legalizing and licensing casino gambling not to limit it but precisely to obtain tax revenue and/or attract tourists.

Supporters also may argue that casinos should be legalized and licensed so that people of modest means will have a fair opportunity to enjoy this form of recreation, otherwise available only to those affluent enough to travel. But people of modest means generally ought to spend their limited funds on genuine necessities, including more economical forms of family recreation. And even if some of these can rightly gamble in casinos, the law need not facilitate their doing so. The state justly refuses to facilitate, and even inhibits, many good things when that serves the common good.

If the measure to legalize and license casino gambling nevertheless reaches the floor and seems likely to pass, I suggest you try to amend it so as to mitigate the evil. For example, you might seek to limit the hours of operation, forbid gambling on credit, severely restrict the availability of liquor, establish extremely heavy penalties for cheating by operators, and set limits to wagers that will impede the most grave excesses by gamblers.

You also might try to keep the casinos out of the three counties with large retiree populations. While many came from elsewhere, they are now among your state’s citizens. As a legislator, you should be as concerned for them as for other citizens and try to safeguard their genuine interests and well-being. Though retirees usually do not have children to support and often have considerable savings, most will be unable to make up for significant losses by future earnings, so that excessive gambling is likely to do them irreparable harm.

Finally, if the legislation is certain to pass or actually passes, you might try to tie to it provisions channeling the revenue it raises into efforts to deal with the bad consequences of gambling and, if funds suffice, of other vices, such as the abuse of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and tobacco.

430. See Craig A. Zendzian, Who Pays? Casino Gambling, Hidden Interests, and Organized Crime (New York: Harrow and Heston, 1993). Since the questioner is not asking about so-called “casino” nights sponsored and/or operated by churches and other nonprofit organizations, I do not consider here the moral questions they pose.

431. A good starting point: U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, The National Impact of Casino Gambling Proliferation: Hearing before the Committee on Small Business, 103d Congress, 2d sess., 21 Sept. 1994 (Serial No. 103–104). Especially useful are the prepared statements by Robert Goodman, director, The U.S. Gambling Study, Lemelson professor of Environmental Design, Hampshire College, and professor of regional planning, University of Massachusetts (56–70); Earl Grinols, professor of economics, University of Illinois (71–76); and John Warren Kindt, professor, University of Illinois (77–81).