Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1996
Volume 7, Number 2

Gambling Funds for Community Use: At Cost to Civic Virtue

Julia Fleming
Assistant Professor of Theology

In its brief discussion of gambling, the1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church reiterates the traditional view that games of chance "are not in themselves contrary to justice," but "become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others" (par. 2413). When only surplus income is at risk, in other words, the choice to gamble is a matter of individual discretion rather than moral duty. Whatever their individual choices or beliefs about participation in various games of chance, the citizens of this state may face a different moral question about such practices in the near future: should we legalize certain types of gambling as a matter of social policy?

Roman Catholic social ethics suggests that Nebraskans ask whether legalization will serve the common good, that is, the best interests of the entire community, including its individual members, particularly those whose vulnerability merits special consideration and concern according to the dictates of social justice.

Assessing the significance of legalization proposals for the common good necessarily demands an effort to compare social benefits with social harms. Do the dollars which gambling might provide outweigh its potential costs to communities "costs which include far more than financial expenditures? Will legalization encourage problem gambling, strain the resources of law enforcement, divert governmental energies from more useful programs, or alter the character of local communities? How will expanded access to gambling affect Nebraska's children, especially those who live in poverty? Who stands to lose and to benefit most from these proposals?

Such questions surface quickly in any careful debate concerning legalization. One factor which attracts relatively little attention, however, is the significance of such proposals for civic virtue. What are the costs to the community as a whole of relying upon means such as gambling, rather than upon increased contributions by citizens in the form of taxes, in order to meet community needs?

Perhaps it would be helpful to begin with this question: how should a just community meet its social obligations? Roman Catholic social ethics has traditionally answered that individuals and groups within society, such as families and corporations, have a moral obligation to contribute to the common good in proportion to their abilities to do so. Voting, volunteer service, raising children, compliance with just laws (even concerning deceptively mundane responsibilities like the speed limit), and the many other duties of daily life contribute to the common good of the whole community. To treat such contributions as necessary sacrifices ignores what makes the common good "common:" we all benefit from living in a community that is safer, cleaner, etc. Moreover, performing such actions, if it is done in the right spirit, can actually help us to become better persons.

Good individuals and good communities require civic virtues, developed through repeated choices to contribute to the common good. Thus, as the Second Vatican Council explains, "the common good embraces the sum of those conditions of the social life whereby persons, families, and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection" (Gaudium et Spes, par. 74).

Part of the support which any community must require from its citizens is financial. Roads, garbage collection, education, healthcare, and other necessities demand a stable flow of revenue. As citizens, we have an obligation in justice to contribute financially to the common good. Yet the word "obligation" doesn't capture the whole of this reality. Roman Catholic social teaching asserts that we have a right to participate in this development of the common good, to play an active role in fostering our community's welfare. Government, with its particular responsibilities toward the common good, assists our participation in this endeavor--in part, through the unenviable task of setting tax regulations and enforcing our compliance. By doing so, the state gives us the opportunity to develop civic virtues. Social "duties" can shape hearts as well as structures.

If this is true, then much more is at stake in community financing than the amount of dollars obtained, as significant as that problem is under today's conditions. How we choose to raise that money says a great deal about us as a people. Do we rise to the challenge when our elected representatives tell us that income cannot meet expenses? Or do we look for a less painful solution: perhaps those who play the slots will think the invisible tax a small price to pay for a chance at easy money. The second strategy may raise funds, but how does it contribute to our individual and communal growth in civic virtue and social justice?

Exasperated proponents of legalization well might object that voters traditionally display little interest in civic virtue when tax increases are at stake. Most of us are complete legalists when it comes to our taxes: we believe that we have met our obligations if we pay the least amount possible under the law, and sometimes that law can be interpreted rather loosely. (Even ethicists look for people skilled in sniffing out the loop-holes). Given their special responsibilities towards the most disadvantaged members of society, can legislators afford to appeal to civic virtue? Is the legalization of gambling a more practical solution to financial shortages under present social and political conditions? Provisional acceptance of this argument, however, only raises a further question. If we do not yet have the level of civic virtue necessary to meet our obligations directly, without recourse to backdoor approaches such as gambling, what must we do in order to gain such virtue?

Five years from now, or ten years from now, will gambling proposals bring us closer to that civic virtue, or will they push it even farther away?

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that "the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply or in some particular respect" (ST I-II, q. 92, art. 1).

If that is correct, then law must respect our practical realities without sacrificing our hope and our moral vision.