Gambling on Virtue

David Foster

May 1, 2003

Even in scandal (which term I use in the old sense) William J. Bennett prompts us to think about virtue, but much of the commentary on his gambling misses an important issue. That issue has less to do with the vice Bennett is alleged to have indulged than with the apparent failure of the virtue he praises.

But before we get to that, consider what the pundits are saying about revelations that the virtue guru and former drug and education czar is a big time gambler. The attempts of some to equate Bennett with Bill Clinton are ridiculous, a transparent attempt to discredit an enemy and his ideas. Bennett is a private citizen who did something legal; Clinton was a President who used his office to do highly questionable and probably illegal things. If, like Clinton, Bennett can be charged with hypocrisy, no court has convicted him of lying under oath. But above all, Bennett can be discussed at dinner with the kids; what the former President did can hardly be discussed frankly even among consenting adults. There is no serious comparison between the two men.

But can Bennett even be charged with hypocrisy? Sure, he praises virtue in stentorian tones, but he never condemned gambling itself. Moreover, he admits to gambling, and has done so for years. Assuming that gambling is a vice, it is surely much better to fall into vice while praising virtue than to do what Clinton did — engage in vice while denying that it is vice. Bennett at least honors the standard of virtue; Clinton did away with it altogether, leaving us with no guidance at all.

If the left’s arguments are dubious, the lukewarm defenses or condemnations of some conservatives are not much better. Yes, Bennett has a legal right to gamble his money away — indeed, he has that right even if, as he assures us was not the case, he was using the milk money. It’s a free country and it’s his money: he can do with it as he wishes. But that begs the question. A legal act can still be a vice. Laws in a liberal democracy don’t aim at preventing vice or producing virtue so much as they aim at regulating property and keeping the peace. Such laws inevitably permit some vice, but that doesn’t mean you can’t — or shouldn’t — call it what it is.

Still others protect Bennett behind a “right to privacy”. But, leaving aside legal arguments, why do we have a right to privacy? Originally, that right aimed to foster sincerity of religious belief and to prevent religiously motivated violence. In the case of sex, the need for privacy has to do with the nature of the thing itself and with the exclusivity that love and fidelity seem to need. Perhaps also it has to do with a certain natural shame in the face of our nakedness — our weakness and mortality. Gambling too exposes human weakness, but protecting gambling by privacy would lead to no greater social good, such as peace or stable families. On the contrary, public exposure of gamblers might be a good thing as a disincentive to gambling.

As a matter of fact, it is important to recognize that condemning vice is fully compatible with a right to privacy. That right grew out of the distinction in liberal democratic thought between Church and State. It originally meant that nothing belonging to the sphere of the Church — faith, religious opinions, ceremonies of worship, etc. — would be regulated by those who made and enforced laws for the whole society. This distinction has gradually morphed into our modern notions of privacy, but it was never meant as a way to hide one’s religious beliefs from public view and debate. Its purpose was to prevent one man from using force against others who disagreed with him in religion. To shield Bennett’s gambling behind a right to privacy would be to say that there can be no public discussion of vice.

Bennett himself would certainly not accept that view of privacy. To do so would undermine his own condemnations of such things as wife-swapping, for in most cases that remains private, though never virtuous. Maybe we should condemn the gambling rather than the gambler, but whoever is willing to condemn wife-swapping as vicious, must also allow the condemnation of gambling.

So let us admit that Bennett’s gambling was neither an egregious hypocrisy nor a mortal sin, and that he should neither be branded with the mark of Clinton, nor defended by refusing to examine his actions. But what then is the problem with what he did? It has to do with the fact that this very public advocate of virtue was not protected by his evident attachment to virtue from becoming a gambler. Why did the treasury of great moral stories collected in The Book of Virtues not arm Bennett against such a wasteful and ephemeral pleasure? Evidently, those virtues were not absorbing enough to make gambling seem unattractive. How else to explain why a man so devoted to virtue wasted eight million good dollars and a lot of even more precious time?

Of course, one example of vice doesn’t undermine the case for virtue, but it does make us wonder why Bennett’s pursuit of virtue didn’t protect him against this failing. Bennett himself explains that he gambles to relax. Let’s hope that is true, and there is no reason not to take him at his wife’s word that he has pulled his last lever. But why exactly was gambling his relaxation of choice? Aristotle, one of the authors excerpted in The Book of Virtues, acknowledges that men need relaxation, but he points to things like study, music, friendly conversation, and raillery, and it is almost inconceivable that the gentleman he describes would spend his time gambling, at least on Bennett’s scale. Aristotle’s moral man enjoys the practice of the virtues; indeed, he seeks his happiness in a life of virtuous action. He would never waste so much money on a pleasure like gambling, when that money could produce much deeper satisfactions by being employed in acts of generosity or through magnanimously arranging some beautiful adornment for his country.

According to Winston Churchill, citizens of modern mass democracies seek their solace not in religion, political action, meditation, or leisurely companionship, but in motion. We are, he tells us, “absorbed or amused… by the inexhaustible trivialities of the day… [and] by speed, sport, luxury, and money-making.” Modern man seeks to be distracted from daily life by thrills, the more intense the better. And for those drawn to it, gambling is plainly one of those thrills. If Bennett had only gambled occasionally or in a small way, there would be no problem. But the extent of his gambling suggests that for him the life of virtue, which for Aristotle’s gentleman is the main source of happiness, is a burden from which some intense escape is occasionally needed. And if virtue needs to be supplemented by something like gambling, how attractive can it really be? If Churchill is right, the attempt to resuscitate virtue in the modern world faces some big obstacles. One of them is the suggestion that Bennett is far from unique. Anyone who gets absorbed in the World Series, who thrills to a murder mystery, who engages in extreme sports, or is distracted by tourism, shares in the same essential temptation. Bennett’s gambling may well be nothing more than an individual idiosyncrasy. But just as one would justifiably wonder about the theories of a famous economist who could never pay his bills, a famous advocate of virtue for whom virtue doesn’t seem to be enough creates doubt about his view of virtue. Bennett has done more than most to revivify a concern for virtue. Hopefully, in responding to this scandal, he will show that the problem does not lie with virtue itself.

David Foster is Chairman of the History and Political Science Departments at Ashland University and an Adjunct Fellow with the Ashbrook Center.