Bioethics Blogs

Gambling on Liberty

Fixed Odd Betting Terminals (FOBTs) allow punters to bet up to £100 a time in casino games such as roulette. Bookmakers are allowed four terminals in each shop, and there are now around 35,000 of them in the UK. In the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) gambling disorder is described in the chapter on substance-disorder and related disorders. It was recently reported that industry-funded research showed that levels of ‘problem gambling’ among those using these machines ran at around 23%.

Many – including a quarter of the local authorities in the UK – are now campaigning for the maximum stake to be limited by law to £2. The reasons given often concern the effects on gamblers themselves, such as loss of employment, difficulties with sleeping, and anxiety. A committed gambler might plausibly claim that these arguments are paternalistic, in that they violate J.S. Mill’s celebrated ‘liberty principle’: ‘The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of action of any of their number, is self-protection’ (On Liberty, ch. 1, para. 9).

But of course FOBTs often cause hardship for people other than the gamblers themselves – in particular, their families. So could limits on stakes be justified to protect their interests?The gambler may respond that we don’t seek to prevent people taking risks in other enjoyable activities which may have seriously detrimental effects on their families, such as dangerous sports or smoking cigarettes. If I’m allowed to race motorbikes at high speed, or smoke 80 Rothmans a day, why should I be prevented from placing £100 bets if that’s what I want to do?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.