Ethical Issues and Lessons From Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’

The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn and the winner receives a prize. While lotteries can be fun for some, the odds of winning are low and the money invested is not guaranteed to be spent wisely. This article discusses the ethical issues surrounding the lottery and what lessons can be learned from Shirley Jackson’s short story, ‘The Lottery.’

The first recorded lotteries, offering tickets in exchange for prizes of money, appear in the Low Countries in the 15th century. They were used as party games at Roman Saturnalia celebrations, or for charitable purposes. They were also tangled up with the slave trade, in which case they sometimes offered human beings as prizes. The lottery was popular in early America, attracting such famous admirers as Thomas Jefferson, who considered it not much riskier than farming, and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped that most people “would prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a big chance of winning little.”

Advocates of state-run lotteries often argue that if people are going to gamble anyway, then the state might as well reap the profits. This argument may be true to some extent, but it obscures the fact that, as Cohen writes, the popularity of the lottery is highly responsive to economic fluctuation. The lottery becomes more popular in times of financial crisis and as states look for ways to balance budgets without enraging anti-tax voters.