Is Slippery Slope Logic Acceptable in an Argument?

These are just notes. As said before, trying to describe political positions as good/bad purely abstractly is the refuge of the scoundrel – the major reason why people do such things is to argue for inhumane things. The foundations of any given regime are a grappling with necessity for the sake of something higher, but injustice cannot therefore be explained to the point of elimination.

And yes, things are going well in Dallas. I hope to be blogging regularly when I get back, I’m just happy to have the time online that I have now.

1. I watched exactly 10 seconds of Bill O’Reilly, and I think he said during that time slippery-slope argumentation was incompatible with a free society. He didn’t bother to elaborate on this position, and so I didn’t bother to keep watching. I turned the TV off and started writing.

As you know, a slippery-slope argument is one where someone argues that if one thing happens, that lowers our resistance to another worse thing happening, that other worse thing following the same logic as the one before. A famous slippery-slope argument (which in this author’s opinion is exactly correct) is:

If you allow birth control, abortion necessarily follows, and the family as an institution becomes a questionable good instead of a primary one.

The best argument against slippery-slope logic probably starts from something like this:

Birth control does not entail abortion.

Since rights in a free society depend on being able to do as much as possible that does not hurt another, the mere possibility of abortion – if one wanted to prevent that possibility – cannot be used as an argument against birth control. Neither can deletrious effects on the family as an institution.

The key to the argument is that each step of the way in a free society, we have the ability to deliberate over laws. There is no firm and final link between birth control and abortion; the threat to the family has to be accounted for in birth control itself, not in a chain reaction it might start.

Slippery-slope argumentation is an attack on our freedoms; it is the verbalization of fears stemming from moralism without rationality. The moral assumes it is the reason for any action or non-action, and it only looks at consequences in light of the moral. It does not take into account human progress and that we can have more freedoms as we are empowered more. Any right can be argued against via slippery slope reasoning – scientific inquiry might lead to people trying to play God, etc., therefore no one should do science.

2. And you can already see the problem with the anti-“slippery-slope” argument. If you think all rights are in danger because of slippery slope argumentation, you yourself are using a slippery-slope logic. People seem to think slippery-slope logic can be avoided. I think the logical form is so general it is impossible to avoid. Here’s the logical form as I see it:

If A, Then B, where A of necessity threatens a principle/moral sentiment which would prevent B.

It’s just a conditional where the antecedent and consequent are linked by being different degrees of destructiveness to something we don’t want to see go. So if you’re against censorship on the Internet, you’re using a slippery slope argument. If you were mad about the Danish cartoon brouhaha, as Bill O’Reilly probably was, there’s a slippery slope argument underlying that: Is one caving into Islamists too much, if one doesn’t “stand with Denmark?”

There might be a way of getting a tighter logical form for a slippery slope argument, and you’re more than welcome to discuss those and trackback to this post. Again, these are just notes.

One might complain that when bringing up censorship/caving into Islamism I’m not taking on the particular argument that slippery-slope argumentation is detrimental to rights. What’s tricky about that argument is that giving as many rights as possible to as many as possible is a fairly good start to characterizing a free society, and the complete definition of a free society for many in academia or politics.

Would that it were true. Aristotle holds that any regime carried out to its logical terminus destroys itself – i.e. a too-democratic democracy becomes anarchy. It’s easy to see why this is: governments are instituted to implement a principle, make it workable within the sphere of the human. They are imperfect authorities in an imperfect world. If one assumes that a principle is perfect enough to implement itself – that gov’t need only stand aside for it wholly – then one assumes (perhaps unknowingly) that we live in a perfect-enough world, where the necessity of government is questionable.

Furthermore, in our government as constituted now, something besides rights for individuals is important, and that something is the general will which allows us to have a government that is even remotely effective/legitimate. Popular opinion has to be on the same page to some degree in order for there to be a rights-granting institution. That “degree” is covered by tradition and norms which slippery slope arguments are usually used to protect. Please note that “let’s have as many rights as possible for as many as possible” can be used as rhetoric to suggest that we have a common enterprise as Americans, an enterprise I’m more than willing to work for. But it usually is used to argue that someone can do as they like for the most part and I have to shut up about it.

3. A further argument could be that society is prior to gov’t, and that slippery slope reasoning impedes the progress society naturally makes – it uses the gov’t to make a partisan interest, one very particular vision of society, the law/norm. Against this I would say that Locke is lying (knowingly) when he gives us two contracts – one for society, another for government. We’re only able to talk to each other now because I, of Indian ethnicity, live in the US. Constitutionalism is in a sense prior to American society – we even talk of the Puritans in terms of how they made freedom possible and how they struggled with certain issues that we struggle with now. (This argument does not contrast with the “popular opinion” one above; work it out, I’ve been careful enough with my terms I think, and you’ll see why).

In my mind, one cannot discriminate against arguments for merely being slippery-slope arguments. One has to assess the problems any change may bring about, and be willing to err on the side of caution. Not every slippery-slope argument is a good argument, quite obviously. But the much maligned “slippery-slope” has been right more often than not.

5 Comments

  1. The slippery slope is to me like if Your Child Gets away with Something the Problem will escalate each time they are told NO but there is no enforcement. By the time the parent tries to wrest control from the minor offender the situation has escalated to a point where Anarchy reigns. So I guess consistant treatment of a situation would Put a stop to the Slipping and backsliding.

  2. Agreed, libertarians can use the logic you’ve outlined to sidestep the slippery-slope. For example, if they can show something guarantees people will pay closer attention or the law will be harsher with something else when a greater freedom is given, then the slippery-slope is a non-issue with all the rights one might want.

  3. Ashok I’m not sure you are right about Locke- the fascinating question is that if society doesn’t exist prior to government- what is it that creates the governing contract- and is anything sovereign to control the governing contract. If I dissolve that contract do I dissolve the people that formed it as well?

  4. you ask, is the slippery slope acceptable in an argument? i ask, what kind of argument? in analytic philosophy and its derivatives, well, of course not. but here we’re talking politics which, one hopes, has something to do with flesh and blood. it has always seemed to me that while the slippery slope is a lousy logical argument, it is still something that needs to be considered.

    the problem, of course, is that we are rarely faced with obvious slopes and slipperiness (not like the slippery mountain highway that made us go into a snow bank yesterday). we cannot, as a society, “see” that birth control a) will slope down to abortion, and that b) abortion is indeed slippery.

    however, we would be foolish not to look at the various implications of whatever we’re contemplating. as fervently free choice i am, i would be concerned if we completely left out abortion in the discussion of birth control.

    so i say let’s go for slippery slope considerations, not slippery slope arguments.

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