Item 26 - Paper by F. W. Lawrence entitled ‘Gambling’; revised version, read before the Oxford Livingstone Society in June 1896

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Paper by F. W. Lawrence entitled ‘Gambling’; revised version, read before the Oxford Livingstone Society in June 1896


  • [1896] (Creation)

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1 wrapper, 29 sheets (numbered 1–10, 10a, 11–28)

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In prefacing the few remarks that I have to make upon gambling I should like to excuse myself for the egotistical line I have taken up. My excuse must be that gambling is so essentially a subject upon which each one must form an opinion of his own, that in dealing with the matter, I have thought it best to speak for myself & myself alone.

I do not pretend to any deep knowledge of the subject & my aim would be to give rise to fruitful discussion, rather than to deliver a didactic discourse.

It seems to me that there are two questions raised, the first is, “Is gambling foolish? The second is “Is gambling immoral?” These two questions I believe to be almost entirely distinct & I shall therefore make an attempt to treat of them quite separately. In the first place then[,] Is Gambling foolish?

Now gambling is of two kinds which we may call fair gambling, & unfair gambling. In the first all persons taking part have an equal chance, & consequently it is only pure luck (which may be combined with more or less skill) which renders one man a winner and another a loser. Of this kind is gambling at cards or betting on horses between men of equal standing. In unfair gambling one or more of those concerned is allowed an extra chance to pay him or them for the trouble & expense of keeping up the table or whatever is necessary for the game. Of this kind may be cited gambling at Monte Carlo or betting with a Bookmaker; & examples might be multiplied without end.

As one example of the former case let us take a man of fairly large means playing for small points (which are to him a mere bagatelle) at such games as whist or Nap. Here no question (as far as he is concerned) save that of a very slight increase or diminution in his income is at stake, & if he is of about equal intellectual ability to those with whom he plays, in the long run he will be about level; if he is more scientific he will very likely gain a little; while if the others are sharper than he is, he will no doubt lose a trifle; but even on this last supposition, we can hardly blame him (on our present point of worldly foolishness) if he considers that the added enjoyment he obtains from the game, is quite worth the trifling expenditure that it costs him.

But the question becomes entirely different as the value of the stake increases & approaches the man’s own means. To take an extreme case: Suppose a man whose total wealth is £100 to enter upon an even bet (or gambling transaction) of £100. Though the gamble is apparently a fair one, will he really gain as much if he wins as he will lose if he is obliged to pay? Though I can conceive of cases to the contrary, I should say emphatically no in general. A man pos[s]essing £200 is so to speak more well to do than the man who has only £100; but both are closely allied to one another compared with the man who has not a penny in the world. But the stake need not be exactly equal in amount to the man’s total pos[s]ession, if it [is] slightly less, we have only to contrast, say, the position of the man with 180, 100 or 20£ to see the truth of the statement; while if the man has to borrow to pay if he loses, the propn is still more evident. {1}

I said however that I could conceive of cases to the contrary. I will endeavour to illustrate them. Suppose a man having £200 ready money owes his creditors £300. An even bet of £200 is offered him. Then whether he refuses to bet, – or bets & loses – he still will be a bankrupt, the only difference being that in the one case he will pay his creditors 13/4 in the pound & in the other case 0; while if he bets & wins, he will clear off all his debts & have a 100 in hand. Clearly then from a worldly point of view he does wisely in taking the bet. {2}

Or again suppose a man to have some special object for his money, failing which it will be of little use to him; suppose say he wants £400 for the special object & has only £200 at his command, it may be worth his while to risk losing all by gambling on an even 200.

So far we have been considering what I have called fair gambling. When we come to unfair gambling it may be worth while to cast a glance at what is popularly known as the ‘mounting up’ of chances. This is illustrated in a great many ways; take for example a game at Lawn Tennis between two nearly equal players. The chance that the one, who is slightly the better of the two, will win any particular stroke, is not very much greater than even, & in fact he will only win a few more strokes than the other in the long run; yet his proportion of games will be very much larger & he will probably win nearly every set. This kind of thing is especially applicable to what I have called unfair gambling. To take a very simple case. A man offers to toss you a penny 200 times, & every time it comes down heads, he will give a penny to you. The fair price for the 200 tosses is evidently 100d but for his trouble etc he asks 5d extra, or 105d altogether; even supposing him to toss fairly it may be shown that the chance is more than 4 to 1 that you will lose.

In such a way as this the profit of the Bookmaker or sharp, is assured, even if he play fair, while the dupe who loses money has no one but himself to blame.

To sum up then: gambling in general as people go in for it, is essentially foolish, but exceptional cases arise in the following; 1st where a man is only staking what to him is an insignificant sum, & considers that even a certain small loss is worth the pleasure it affords him, & 2ndly where a man wishes to reach up to a certain sum below which his money is of no use to him.

[There is a space here in the MS.]

I hope I shall be pardoned for having thus dealt as† some length with what may be called the secular or worldly view of the case. No doubt the positions which I have set forth & the opinions which I have expressed are well known to all & accord more or less closely with their own views on the case, but I have thought it necessary to state them at the outset in order that there might be no confusion as to the issue, between the foolishness of gambling & the question of its morality.

I think I may claim to have established more or less definitely that gambling is in general foolish, but not by any means always so. I now turn to the second question:— Is gambling always immoral.

Seeing the great devastation caused by gambling, the homes that it has ruined, the characters it has wrecked, an attempt has often been made to lay down general principles upon which gambling may be condemned.

I am afraid good people are often so eager to do this, that they introduce by special pleading, new principles for the purpose,—principles which if really sound would condemn a great many other things beside g[ambling], but which often in reality are themselves hopelessly untrue.

With this in mind I have endeavoured to take a brief for the gambler as against the objections which are often set forth, & having thus to my own satisfaction demolished them where futile, I have tried to place on firm ground accusations against him, not without fear that some persons more ingenious than myself will be able to sweep these also away.

Thus it has been suggested as an objection to gambling that money does not belong to the possessor but is his only in trust; that it is not his to spend as he will, or to throw away at will. A man may make answer, do you consider the indulgence in any luxury immoral? G[ambling] is my luxury; if I spend £50 a year on g[ambling]; you spend £50 a year more than I do upon your clothes & your meals your amusements & your luxuries; you cannot call me immoral & not yourself because I spend my money upon what amuses me, & would not amuse you, & you spend it upon what pleases you but would not please me. Moreover you use your money in such a way as to take up the time of the world’s workers for your selfish convenience; my money is merely handed on to some one else who will no doubt make as good use of it as I should have done.

Or do we suggest that the wrong consists in rich men to whom the stake is as nothing playing with (& may-be taking money from) those who can ill afford to lose it. Many a man may make answer ‘Though I know this is an existing evil, yet for my own part I never play for stakes with anyone unless I feel sure he can afford to pay them.

Do we suggest that gambling is immoral because men waste their time upon it which should have been devoted to other things, answer may be made, that this is by no means always the case, & in addition the same objection may be raised against other games & pastimes; yet surely no one would venture to suggest that say cricket was in general immoral for the same reason.

Do we suggest that gambling is immoral because the object of the gambler is to “score off” someone else & take money from him without having done any work for which it is a payment. (This is substantially the line of argument which Dr Martineau takes up, in a letter on the subject which was kindly lent to me by a friend; & he adds that the destruction of character caused by attempting to satisfy this desire of the gambler is the root of the evil of gambling.) {3}

To this the man whom we may call the moral gambler makes answer: If it is the scoring off some one else in the abstract you object to, is that not the object of every game that is played; but if it is the taking of money from him that you consider wrong; how about the great majority of commercial transactions; it is impossible for the buyer or seller to consider exactly whether he is only making just a fair profit; & yet you would not call him in general immoral. But in the case of gambling the loser does it with his eyes open. I may surely make a present to a friend of £50, or he may make a similar one to me, there can be nothing wrong in that; yet if I like to suggest to him that one or other of us shall make a present to the other under certain conditions you call that immoral.

I am not quite sure how far this answer is satisfactory. It has been made by separating from one another the 2 clauses which form part of the indictment. It may be true that there is nothing wrong about wishing to beat another man, & nothing wrong in taking money from him according to contract under his good pleasure; & yet at the same time it may be wrong to desire so to beat him as to take money from him. I do not feel quite competent to decide this question. And while some may regard it as the crux of the whole matter, I prefer to consider the question from other aspects.

I have attempted so far to exhaust all the strictly a priori arguments against gambling, & with the exception of the doubtful case of the last argument, so far as I can see, none of them have remained unanswered; & tho’ no doubt a great many gamblers would be convicted on one or other of the charges, there will still be a large body of what we may call ‘petty gamblers’ who will consider perhaps justly that they remain uncondemned.

Before coming to another point of view, we may sum up the results at which we have arrived in one test case. Suppose there was an isolated society in which petty gambling took place, ie gambling in which the sums staked were always so small there was never any chance of the real income of any individual being seriously affected, & suppose that a guarantee existed that these limits never would or could be surpassed. Would you be prepared to condemn them?

It is a question it seems to me upon which there might well be a difference of opinion, but for my own part taking up the line which I have endeavoured to put forward, I should be unwilling to pass a condemnation.

This is no doubt the position which would be claimed by those in the midst of our universities, who habitually play with their friends such games as whist for 3d points & Nap for ½d points. They would claim that they practically fulfilled the conditions of the test case. But it is a position which I for one would deny to them.

And now I come to the grounds upon which I would be prepared to take my own stand; & in doing so I hope I shall not meet with the fate of Herodotus, who in discussing the cause of the rise of the Nile in summer first demolishes all the really reasonable suggestions which had been put forward, & then proceeds to give his own explanation the only one which is hopelessly absurd. {4]

My position then is briefly as follows. We do not live to ourselves alone; & though it is impossible for us in every individual action to weigh thoroughly the effect it may have as an example to others, in addition to all the other results; yet in the case of a continued line of action, this task is quite possible, & it is incumbent upon us to perform it.

I propose therefore to consider whether gambling is to be condemned on the ground of example & ulterior results, ie as some people have said on ‘a posteriori grounds.

In order to do this I have taken the position in an analogous case & endeavoured to classify the various opinions which may be held on it. This problem is the drink question. I am particularly anxious that in so doing I should not divert the discussion of gambling to this very vexed subject. And I have accordingly not even hinted at the conclusion at which I arrive on the latter. But I think it is often very useful to transfer our problems to analogous questions, because not only does it give us considerable light on those subjects which we are discussing, but often it enables us to understand the position of those who differ from us in one subject, by comparing their view in it, with that which we ourselves hold in some analogous subject.

As far as I can judge there are roughly 5 main different positions which may be taken up on the question of drinking.

1st That all drinking of alcoholic liquors is bad (except perhaps medicinally) & that in consequence as soon as men can overcome their lust for it & give up the better.

2nd That drinking them as a beverage is never good, but may not do harm unless carried to excess; nevertheless even those who drink in moderation, should give it up seeing they gain no actual good from it in order that they may set a good example to others.

3rd That drinking may be beneficial to some in moderation; but even so it is better for all to give it up; in order that they may not be a stumbling block to others.

4th that if a man enjoys drinking & it does him no harm, he is not bound to consider the effect on others.

5th that a moderate amount of drink is actually beneficial to a large number of people, & that they should not therefore in the majority of cases give it up; because it causes evil when carried to excess; any more than we should give up the use of fire, because it often does great damage.

These views differ some in the statement of the facts of the case, others in the opinions derived from them. I have set them down, not to argue on them, but to compare them with the views on gambling.

All these views may be held on gambling & as a matter of fact on any great question of the day.

Our final judgment upon gambling will depend upon which of the 5 positions we are prepared to take up with regard to it; & as time presses I will not further delay the discussion by argueing† them out in detail; but I will only add that for my own part I take up with regard to gambling what I have denoted as the 2nd point of view viz that it is never beneficial, but may not do harm in a great many cases; nevertheless even in these cases it should be given up in order that a bad example may not be set to others, who carrying it out in a different way turn it into an absolute evil.

Accordingly I would maintain that gambling is absolutely immoral even to the extent of 3d points at whist or ½d points at Nap. {5}

In mitigation of this I may point out that as morality is to a certain extent relative, extremely anomalous cases might occur in which it might be justified not only as not immoral but even as just & right.

And further I merely set forth my own position on a case which everyone must consider for himself.

I should like to add one remark as a kind of footnote.

There is a specific case which is often quoted as though it stood or fell with gambling. It is the case of Insurance companies.

Now in the first place, judging gambling as I have endeavoured to do, on a posteriori grounds, it would not be special pleading to maintain that Insurance Cos being obviously good did not stand condemned with gambling.

But I would contend that Insurance Cos are not gambling at all, but rather the reverse of it.

All life must inevitably be more or less a game of chance played with varying amounts of skill against nature. The man who insures is to a large extent destroying the chance element in nature so far as he is concerned.

And the Insurance Co are not gambling 1st because their gain is not another’s lost†, & 2nd because they are merely filling the position of the risk takers. A position which must be filled by some [one.]


The conclusion of the paper is wanting, but it seems likely that not very much is missing, possibly only the word supplied. The wrapper is marked ‘Gambling | Revised to read before Oxford Livingstone Society June 1896’. The Livingstone Society at Oxford was connected with Mansfield College, which was at that time a mainly Congregationalist institution not fully incorporated in the University. The Society’s minute books for the period from 1893 to 1930 are preserved at the college.

{1} Below this is written ‘1/10 – 1/10’ and on the facing page (i.e. the back of the preceding sheet) ‘A man twice bets a 1/10 of his income.’ The meaning of these rough notes is not clear.

{2} The following rough note is inserted here: ‘Known as the aphorism “A debtor always plunges”’.

{3} The reference is probably to the letter quoted in James Drummond and C. B. Upton, The Life and Letters of James Martineau (1902), ii. 174–5, as follows:

‘Gambling, I suppose, has its inner source in the competitive passion, or love of superiority, with the addition, distinguishing it from chess or cricket, of the love of gain. The former is irreproachable, where both parties wish to settle their relations by a trial of skill. The latter is always mean and base, where the gain to oneself is simply loss to another. The consent of that other, no doubt, distinguishes the act from thieving; but when you remember that he would not have consented, except in the hope of making you the loser, the whole bargain assumes an ignoble character. Then in the rational estimate of consequences the practice of gambling surely has no less demerit. The moment the simple excitement of competition of skill becomes insufficient without the money stake, the taint of moral character, the contented gain at others' expense, has set in ; and that the stake is 2d, instead of £20 makes no more moral difference than there is between a theft of 2d, and a theft of £20. The mischiefs, of course, increase enormously with high play. But the immorality does not wait to begin with the swollen amount, so as to be a mere question of degree. There are many cases of morals, no doubt, where the division between right and wrong lies somewhere along a line of degree,—e. g. in the ethics of appetite. But this is always where the primitive impulse has itself a blameless beginning and defined function, beyond which excess sets in and runs into ever deeper guilt. In gambling the initial principle—gain by another's loss—is vicious and vitiating.’

A footnote records that ‘The printed copy of this letter which has been placed in my [i.e. Drummond’s] hands contains no indication of time or occasion when it was written, except that it seems to belong to the year 1891, and was composed in reply to a question addressed to him.’

{4} Herodotus, Book II, § 28.

{5} Inserted here is this rough note: ‘(& I would point out that the case of petty gambling in the U[niversity] is not the test case cited above 1st because they are not an isolated com[munity] & 2nd after effect’.

† Sic.

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