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What do Tattersall’s corporate affairs people think they are doing?

By James Doughney - posted Wednesday, 31 March 2004

The same firm that commissioned The Barrington Report – a manual of dirty tricks designed to keep compulsive gamblers feeding Tatt’s pokies – has now commissioned an “ethical opinion” on whether “gambling can be an ethical business”. See The ethical case for gambling, by Rufus Black and Hayden Ramsay.

One can readily understand why Tattersall’s might feel a need to say something about ethics. Tattersall’s have taken a pounding since The Barrington Report was leaked. Later leaks of data from their “customer loyalty program” made matters worse. Moreover, their repeated refusals to name their 200 “beneficiaries”, who reap the profits of their poker machine business, further sully their reputation.

Yet, bad name and bad press notwithstanding, why respond like a punch-drunk old heavyweight and put oneself in the ring again? Make no mistake, it is Tattersall’s who are out there pushing Black and Ramsey’s opinion: to the media, to government and I’ll bet, to the investment community.


I suspect their strategy is something like this. Trumpet loudly Black and Ramsey’s conclusion that gambling can be an ethical business. Brush over as quickly as possible the fact that Black and Ramsey base such conclusions on positive examples like raffles when the real issue is poker machines. Dream and hope that no one will take the time to read the actual opinion carefully.

Having now read Black and Ramsey’s opinion a couple of times I feel three useful points must be made to readers of this page.

First, the opinion is very abstract. It asks in general whether gambling may be conducted ethically. Answering this abstract question Black and Ramsey conclude, “Gambling can contribute to the enrichment of individual and community life. There are clear principles, which if followed, would make that contribution reasonable. If both conclusions hold, then the provision of gambling can be an ethical business.” The authors do not address at all the important policy questions of the day: “If it can be conducted ethically, is it being conducted ethically at present? Is it being conducted reasonably in practice?”

Black and Ramsey neither explore nor even consider the relevant facts. They do not ask whether it is ethically reasonable for 60 per cent of poker machine losses to be inflicted on 6 per cent of users, with all the attendant harms these losses cause. They also do not ask if it is right these losses are concentrated disproportionately in low-income areas.

My second point is this: Why do the authors skirt these crucial questions? The answer, I assume, is that Tattersall’s did not ask for an “opinion” on them. Tattersall’s might be a bit punchy, but they are not yet that stupid.

Hence, Black and Ramsey just discuss gambling as it might be rather than poker machine gambling as it actually is. They undertake what they call in the paper published in the journal International Gambling Studies, “an exercise in reason” that is “informed purely by the resources of philosophy”. To do so they apply a version of the ethical approach of 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant.


Now, had they been asked to analyse the current facts, they surely would have had a categorical imperative to answer, for example, whether it is right for Tattersall’s and Tabcorp to treat the 6 per cent of Victorians as mere means to an end, ie as a means to the vast revenues they reap. Kant, of course, would have insisted that we treat these problematic gamblers as human ends-in-themselves.

An obvious conclusion arises. To eliminate the harm inflicted on problematic gamblers by treating them as ends-in-themselves, or even to minimise this harm seriously, would mean turning the current poker machine business on its head.

Looking at what really happens to problem gamblers would also surely have meant Black and Ramsey having to scrutinise critically the relationship of “dreaming and hope” to human fulfilment. The notion of hope is central to their argument that gambling can be ethical. However, to emphasise the need for critical reflection we can surmise what Aristotle, Black and Ramsay’s other mentor, might have thought. For it to be truly virtuous and rational, in the Aristotelian sense, hope should be moderated. Too little hope means we can be unmotivated and lapse into depression and despair. Too much hope means we can be motivated in exaggerated ways by illusion, delusion and fantasy.

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Article edited by Susan Prior.
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This articles was first published in The Age on 26 March 2004.

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About the Author

Dr James Doughney is Senior Researcher, Work and Economic Policy Research Unit at Victoria University and author of The Poker Machine State: Dilemmas in Ethics Economics and Governance.

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