Sheldon Adelson is a billionaire many times over. According to Forbes, he’s roughly eleventh in the world so far as personal fortunes go. He’s no Warren Buffett, but misses the mark by not a lot. He is purportedly worth about $35 billion.
He made his fortune in casino gambling. He is chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which operates the Venetian Resort Hotel and Casino and the Sands Expo and Convention Center. He has developed Las Vegas-style casinos in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Marina Bay, Singapore, and Macau, China.
He was born in 1933 in Boston, Massachusetts to Ukrainian Jewish parents. His mother was a knitting shop owner and his father drove a taxi.
Here at the close of 2013, Adelson is making the rounds decrying the proposed legalization of internet gambling (appearing on Bloomberg TV today, December 23, 2013). Adelson’s political activism provides a perfect example of the inherently subjective nature of morality, supporting my contention that there is no such thing as an inherently good or bad thing. All of morality is subjective. Ah, but you object (no doubt, objectively). What about eating babies? Isn’t that inherently evil? No, it is not, but first we must define morality.
The first definition for “moral” in the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, is of or concerned with the goodness or badness of human action and character. And all the rest of the definitions are equally unsatisfactory, defining moral in circular terms of good and bad without defining good or bad. If moral, or morality, is about the goodness or badness of a thing, what makes a thing good or bad?
My definition of morality, and concomitantly, good and evil, is simple: That which is moral and good is that which enhances the prospects of survival and propagation of the person or entity making the evaluation. That which is immoral and bad is that which diminishes it.
My definition is inherently subjective, just as are all judgments made along the course of striving to survive and prosper, but there is an added dimension to its subjectivity not necessarily apparent at first blush. There are things that are moral and good from an individual standpoint, but which are immoral and bad from the standpoint of society. But, because no individual member of a sexually reproducing species can survive alone, morality from the standpoint of the individual must yield to morality from the standpoint of society when the two are in conflict.
In humans, group survival is often paramount if any individuals of the group are to survive, so a great store of energy is expended by groups in attempting to align individual survival impulses with group needs. Often when people speak of “objective morality”, they mean the accepted rules and morals (maybe even down to the grammar of the communication system) for whatever survival group it is to which they belong. Thus murder is immoral, but only within the group, as allowing group members to submit to their murderous impulses would imperil the survival of the group. Extra-group killings (i.e., war) aren’t immoral, and are often in fact celebrated by the group, if the killings enhance group, and thereby individual, survival and propagation prospects. The same could be said of stealing. The Ten Commandments only applied to the individuals within the Hebrew nation. Outside of the Hebrew nation, killing and stealing were celebrated for precisely what they were—strategies for enhancing the Hebrew nation’s prospects for survival and propagation.
To put things more starkly, Nazis believed that Jewish genocide was a good thing for the German nation. Not surprisingly, the Jews so targeted did not agree. But according to the book of Exodus in the Old Testament, the Hebrew nation believed that God commanded the genocide of the Canaanites in Palestine before the Hebrews took the land for their own. Presumably, the Canaanites so targeted for extermination and/or expulsion disagreed. There is no such thing as a thing which is objectively good or objectively evil.
Eating babies is a harder thing to infuse with a sense of morality, but still, it’s easy enough to see a time and place where eating a baby is the morally correct thing to do. Imagine an airplane full of people that crashes in the Andes where there are survivors, but in a location so remote that rescue is all but foreclosed (as actually happened in the late seventies, which of course became the subject of a book and movie, and now, a website). There is a baby on board that survives the crash, but the baby’s mother is barren of milk and she has brought along only a couple of days’ supply of formula. Sometime after the baby formula runs out and whilst the prospects for rescue are still quite dismal, killing and eating the baby might absolutely be the good and moral thing for the surviving adults to do. If the adults died, the baby would most certainly also die. But the adults might be able to survive and make more babies if the baby that crashed with them is killed and eaten. From the baby’s point of view, its sacrifice is necessarily immoral. And from society’s point of view, sacrificing the future as represented by a baby is also usually immoral. But not if the society would die should the baby not be sacrificed.
An objective morality that said no babies could ever be killed and eaten might well imperil the survival of the group adopting it. The same is true for any number of similar prohibitions suffused with moral tincture, from prohibitions against eating pork (which would not work well in a calamity where swine were all that survived as foodstuffs) to prohibitions against mating with one’s sibling (which would not work well if there were no other potential mates). These prohibitions are generally good to follow, in the sense that doing so generally enhances survival and propagation prospects (no swine borne diseases; a bit more genetic diversity than can be gained through sibling couplings), but absolutely must be abandoned when circumstance change in a manner that compels abandonment. It could be said that the willingness to abandon so-called objective moral absolutes in times of duress is an attribute that all those aspiring to moral goodness should possess.
I challenge anyone reading this to provide an example of an action that is morally good or evil in all times and all places and for all people.
Now that morality is understood to be inherently subjective, Sheldon Adelson’s actions over the course of the last few couple of years can be clearly analyzed. First, Adelson quit the Democratic Party to support Republicans in the 2012 election. He gave a long list as to why, but I’ll cover only two. He claimed he quit supporting the Democratic Party, which as a Jewish American was practically a foreswearing of his heritage, because Republicans are more generously charitable. Yes, he claimed Republican charitable giving was one of his reasons for switching parties. And, of course, as anyone with $30 plus billion, he gives away a lot of money to causes he supports. And so, generally, do other similarly wealthy Republicans, and Democrats, for that matter. But what he was really saying is that capitalist concentrations of wealth are good for the charitable largesse they enable. And that the Republican platform generally supports an economic system that allows, if not celebrates, extreme concentrations of wealth.
His reasoning is neither a very clever nor ingenuous rationalization of why it was good that he got so wealthy. It was in fact a quite naked and obvious attempt to tie his own wealth accumulation to society’s greater moral good.
Further, he claimed he switched because Republicans supported the state of Israel more adamantly than did Democrats. And that can be argued, at least since Barack Obama’s election, is true. For whatever reason, Adelson has an impulse to support the Zionist state in Palestine. He even started a newspaper in Israel, Israel Ha Yom, presumably at least partially to allow his views greater exposure in the country. But there is nothing objectively moral about supporting the state of Israel. It is only Adelson’s subjectively-determined moral impulse that Israel is good and worthy of his, and America’s, support. A great many Americans, particularly those of the evangelical wing of Christianity, agree with Adelson, feeling that American support of Israel is biblically compelled. But again, theirs is a subjective morality. From their point of view, Israel’s rebirth harkens the final days when Christ will return to rule over the earth. The Jews in Israel don’t apparently mind that many Americans support Israel out of adherence to a faith which believes the Jews will be banished to hell for failing to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ. Such is the subjective and self-interested nature of morality.
(It should be pointed out here that anything that is inherently subjective is also inherently evaluated according to selfish impulses and biases. That there is no such thing as altruism is a subject for another day, but is a premise upon which this discussion is founded. Suffice to say, nobody ever does anything for anyone else that is not motivated by their own selfish aims–if nothing else, by the good feeling they get from helping others.)
But lately Adelson has made the news for a cause striking closer to his heart. He has come out adamantly opposed to the legalization of internet gambling, saying in an article he wrote for Forbes, that with internet gambling legalized, the click of a mouse might result in a gambler losing his house. This from a man who has a casino gambling empire stretching from tiny Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, all the way to Macau, China. Who else might lose if an internet gambler clicked a mouse and lost his house? Why, of course, Mr. Adelson and his brick and mortar gambling dens.
But Adelson is adamant that his ownership of brick and mortar casinos has nothing at all to do with his moral argument against internet gambling. Here, witness man in his full, moralistic, self-interested fervor:
As an industry leader, and more importantly as a father, grandfather, citizen and patriot of this great country, I am adamantly opposed to the legalization and proliferation of online casino gaming…
…Whether it is full casino gaming, poker only, or anything in between -this is a societal train wreck waiting to happen…
…Critics will claim I have ulterior motives in taking such a strong stand on this issue. They’ll say I’m just afraid to compete for this business or that I’m worried about the impact on my land-based casinos in Nevada and Pennsylvania.
First, with our popular brands – like The Venetian – we would be very effective competitors in this market place. Having started more than 50 different successful businesses over the course of my nearly seven decades- long business career, I’m not afraid of competing with anyone.
Second, our company makes twice as much money from our non-gaming attractions in the United States than we do from our casino operations. Finally, almost all our casino profits come from Asia, where online gambling doesn’t exist and won’t be legalized soon, if ever.
So while the impact on my company’s business would be limited, the hit on other commercial casinos, Native American casinos, and racetrack-casinos across the land could be substantial and even lead to their eventual demise.
So, while Adelson’s casino revenue would not be affected, it would affect the revenues of Native American casinos, among others. The horrors! Allowing internet gambling would be a new Trail of Tears for Native Americans! This is so disingenuously, nakedly striving to equate the moral good of mankind with one man’s selfish interests that it is, in a way, beautiful. Because Adelson openly displays what most men fastidiously hide when claiming the moral high ground—that their moral impulses are inherently subjective and selfishly motivated. There is no question with Adelson. They plainly, openly and obviously are.
While claiming his objection is based upon his moral conviction that internet gambling is a societal train wreck, he cites statistics on what happened in Europe that show nothing but a land-based casino train wreck ensued:
Recent research from a number of European countries shows that the proliferation of internet gaming has, as a start, resulted in a 20 percent decrease in visitation to the land-based casinos in those countries. That number is bound to worsen as internet gaming dependency grows.
The research also shows that over the past ten years internet gambling revenue in Europe has gone up on average 26 to 28 percent. Meanwhile, land-based casino revenue has been flat or even contracted during that same period of time, even though it was expected to increase at five to ten percent per year.
Could there possibly be any better example that proves my point that morality is inherently subjective? That our notion of good and evil turns on what we perceive as good or evil for us? To Sheldon Adelson, internet gambling is morally repugnant. Would anyone expect any different from a scion of casino gambling, especially given the statistics he cites as to its untoward impacts upon, well, casino gambling?
Thank-you, Mr. Adelson, for the lesson you provide on the subjective basis of human morality.