Casinos, drugs and McDowell

Michael McDowell said on Monday (24 April) gambling casinos were "more damaging to society than positive". He said: "I honestly believe that they do not add anything to the good of life in Ireland." He offered this as one of the reasons why he was proposing to introduce legislation prohibiting casinos, of which there are now 20 in the Dublin area. Another of the reasons he offered was that gambling casinos could be used as means of laundering money.

There will be many who will agree with Michael McDowell that casinos are more damaging to society than they are enriching, if they can be said to be in any sense enriching. Many will also agree that they do nothing good for the life of Ireland. But these are not good enough reasons for restricting the freedom of others to engage in casino gambling. Most of us believe than many pursuits and outlets do no good for life in Ireland and cause damage to society. A few people believe, for instance, that religion is damaging to society. Others believe television is a menace, that dancehalls are satanic. Quite a few believe that sexual activity outside marriage is wrong and that homosexuality is an abomination. Many of us believe computer games damage the intellectual functioning of children's minds. That card games damage everyone's minds and souls.

The point is that personal belief on what is good for Ireland or good for a person cannot be the basis for legislation because there is no consensus on what constitutes good or bad and an attempt to enforce particular ideas of the good amount eventually to despotism. We live in a society where there are widely diverse views on what constitutes 'good' – any attempt to enforce one version of the 'good' is oppressive.

However, if it were true that casinos were being used regularly to launder money obtained through criminality, the banning of casinos might be justifiable. But, palpably, that is not so. Some people chose to go to casinos and waste (in the eyes of many of us) their money. They get a thrill from gambling that those of us who do not gamble do not understand. Gambling certainly causes harm to many of them and a wide circle around them. But it is also so that drinking excessively causes harm not just to the drinker but to a wide circle around him/her, and nobody proposes to ban the consumption of alcohol.

If people chose to inflict harm (as many of us see it) on themselves, even when the consequences of this harm are social, we have no right to interfere with their autonomous decision.

If people want to drink alcohol excessively or gamble excessively, we have no right to interfere. We may as a society do what we can to persuade them not to do this, but we must respect their autonomous decision.

There is a more pressing relevance to this argumentation than casinos. It has to do with drugs.

Why, if people want to take drugs, some of which may have a harmful effect on them, should we not respect their autonomous right to take such substances? Why should the State interfere if a few people in their own homes have a joint of cannabis? A line of cocaine? Because some people believe these substances are bad for other people? Because some believe they are more damaging to society than positive? Because they honestly believe these substances add nothing to the good of life in Ireland? These are not considerations which legitimately found the basis for State intervention.

Action that causes direct harm to others should be prohibited. But action that causes harm to the person himself/herself? What legitimate basis is there for interfering with that?

There are other good arguments in favour of removing the criminal prohibitions on "illegal substances". The main such argument is that the "war on drugs" itself has done terrible damage to society. It has given rise to widescale criminality and organised criminality, it has driven health problems arising from the abuse of drugs underground, thereby making dealing with such problems all the more difficult. It has diverted police resources and the resources of the criminal justice system from the locus of real harm: the arena of sexual crime, which is of epidemic proportions.

Gambling is a major social problem, as is the abuse of drugs and alcohol. Gambling causes destitution, the destruction of families and of lives – and this is not just casino gambling, more likely gambling through bookmakers' shops and on the internet. This is something with which society has to deal. But not through the interference with autonomous choice.

Vincent Browne