The Ethics of Public Lotteries


The lottery is a national pastime and a major source of revenue for state governments. But it’s also a huge gamble, and it raises questions about the ethics of public lotteries. Are people making rational decisions when they purchase tickets? Is the disutility of losing money outweighed by the entertainment value or other non-monetary benefits?

In a lottery, players pay for a ticket and then select a group of numbers. These numbers are then randomly spit out by machines, and winners receive prizes depending on how many of their numbers match those randomly selected. People play the lottery for all sorts of reasons, from winning a big cash prize to getting into a prestigious university or landing a good job. But the odds of winning are always slim, and it’s important to know your chances of winning before you buy a ticket.

While it’s not easy to win, the lottery has one advantage: It doesn’t discriminate against anyone. Your gender, race, height, weight or income has 0% impact on your chances of winning. And this is why so many people play it – they can get in on the action and dream of becoming rich overnight.

The word lottery is believed to have originated in the Low Countries in the 17th century, from a Dutch noun meaning fate (“lot”). Early lotteries were run by towns for a variety of purposes including helping the poor, raising funds for town fortifications and public usages, such as canals, churches, libraries and colleges. Lotteries played a major role in the development of colonial America, where they were used to fund public works and military ventures.