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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Slippery Slope Arguments

Posted by John McGowan, Guest Author, on 12/08/05 at 11:25 AM

This is a guest post by John McGowan. He’s sort of a nomad of the blogs; he’ll be with us for a while; perhaps you know him from his guest stint at Michael B’s. But he actually has a home. (If you’re curious were part II of my Theory wossname is? Should be up tomorrow.) - the Management

I hate slippery slope arguments.  Now I want to work through whether that hatred is justified—and get your reactions to my reasoning.

Here’s the basic intuition: people resort to a slippery slope argument when they have no good (i.e. compelling or likely to be convincing) arguments to offer against the specific practice or belief in question.  In most cases, I would venture to guess, the person who uses the slippery slope argument actually does object to the practice or belief in question, but feels like he has to use a “dire consequences” argument to get any leverage in the debate with those who disagree with him.  The basic strategy is to identify some belief or practice that is pretty uncontroversially and pretty universally accepted as “bad” and then insist that the practice/belief in question will (pretty much) inevitably lead to that bad result.

So let’s consider possible ways to make a slippery slope argument.  Number One:  I could say that loading a gun places one on the slippery slope toward shooting someone with that gun.  Here, however, we enter the tricky, but crucial, question of how to understand an “action.” (My thoughts here are deeply influenced by J. L. Austin’s discussion of these issues in “A Plea for Excuses.”) In a case of murder where a gun was used, we don’t think that the action of murdering someone only involves the pulling of the trigger.  “Loading the gun” did not put the perpetrator on the slippery slope to murder; it was an integral part of the action that we designate by the name “murder.” In other words, when we understand an action as intentional, as having been done by an agent with the end firmly in view from the outset, then the means to that action are not causes of its having been done, but are undertaken precisely because they are means.

In short, slippery slope arguments cannot get much traction in cases of intentional action.  Their field of application is pretty much limited to the unintentional, to things we are led to do and believe inadvertently as a result of something we did without any consciousness that it would lead us on to this next (bad) thing.  (The only alternative is the invidious use of slippery slopes by people who are trying to manipulate an agent or agents.  The manipulator will get you to do Action A because he really wants you to do Action B, but knows you would object to doing Action B if asked to do it.  So he gets you to do Action A because he knows it will lead you to do Action B.)

Crucially, then, slippery slope arguments purport to point out consequences of which the agent is not aware or (possibly) is disingenuously refusing to acknowledge. The person using the slippery slope argument sees further into the future, into the ways things will unfold, then the person against whom the argument is being used.

Still, we need to ask what form that argument takes. So here’s Number Two (of ways to make a slippery slope argument):  I tell my friend that keeping a loaded gun in his house is inadvisable, citing the statistical evidence that such a gun is much more likely to injure a member of his family than any imagined other target (an intruder, say). Is this really a slippery slope argument?  I don’t think so.  I am making an argument based on probabilities, admitting that there are a number of possible consequences to his action, of which the gun’s never being fired at all is the highest.  I am just saying that, given the various probabilities, the chances of regrettable harm outweigh rather significantly the chances of achieved benefit—and thus the action is inadvisable.  He hasn’t stepped onto the slippery slope by putting a loaded gun in his dresser drawer.  He has upped his chances of a member of his family being harmed by that gun.

Thus, it seems to me that slippery slope arguments almost always (even if not very forthrightly) imply a stronger necessity than probability would offer.  Slippery slope arguments are about drastic consequences of which others seem blithely unaware, but that are just about inevitably going to follow if this action or belief is embraced.  It’s the combination of other’s unconsciousness and the surety of the doom to follow that gives slippery slope arguments their peculiar vehemence.  The slippery slopist is a Cassandra, seeing evils to come that others walk into blindly.

So what is the mechanism of that doom?  It is movement by imperceptible degrees.  The core of slippery slope arguments, it seems to me, is the notion that (especially in matters of morals) humans can—and will—move from good to bad by such tiny steps (think of the tortoise, and of Zeno’s paradox) that the moment of transition will not be discernible, so that the bad will be embraced as the good. (There are some attempts out there to use slippery slopes to move people from the bad to the good, but I’d say 98% of the cases involve a downward slide to depravity.) As a matter of moral psychology and of the ways that people lie to themselves about what they are doing, I accept (as any admirer of George Eliot’s novels would) that people often do move from the bad to the worse in such a way, convinced of their righteousness to the very end.

But precisely because such is a fact of moral psychology, we have all the more reason not to use slippery slope arguments in moral philosophy.  One goal (there are others) of moral philosophy should be the articulation of the specific reasons to approve, decry, permit, forbid, or suffer any particular action.  Yes, there are fine degrees in our moral characterization of actions, and moral philosophy should be marked by its attention to and ability to articulate sharply those degrees.  We distinguish degrees of badness—and have to offer reasons for the distinctions of degree we offer. 

The slippery slope argument simply muddies these waters.  If a given action is one that, for the most part, we allow to continue even if we do not wholly approve of it, the reasons for our forbearance can be stated—and will range from everything to questions of enforcement costs to the actual harms the behavior causes to our sense of how malleable human tendencies toward that behavior are.  Plausible arguments that this behavior increases the probability of engaging in more harmful, more morally objectionable, behavior in the future is certainly relevant in this assemblage of reasons.  But such arguments about possible consequences 1) never acquire anything remotely approaching proof of a “necessary” connection and 2) count are arguments against this behavior in its specificity here and now.  In other words, the argument should be directed against doing Action A; it shouldn’t change the subject by having us focus on how bad Action B is.  The badness of Action B is only relevant to our attitude toward Action A if a plausible case for their probable connection can be provided.  And, even then, that plausible case needs to contend with all the other reasons for why Action A is generally tolerated in our society.  (Again, slippery slope arguments are rarely used to win approbation for a generally despised practice; rather, they are used to persuade us to stop tolerating an established—or innovative—practice.)

There is another common variant (Number 3) of slippery slope arguments: namely the contention that someone’s beliefs “logically entail” further beliefs that they would want to disavow.  Thus, they should abandon the belief in question.  This kind of argument is especially prevalent in politics—and runs through what have always seemed to me the rather hysterical claims that certain philosophical or critical positions held by intellectuals are, at base and if pushed to their “logical conclusions,” either right-wing or left-wing.  The problems here are, it seems to me, exactly the same as those outlined above.  The only way to make good on such claims about logical entailments is to make the argument in detail, moving step by step as through a geometric proof, thus precisely making conscious and articulated what the arguer is insisting is inchoate but present.  And once you have made the argument step by step, we are no longer on a slippery slope.  We have built a staircase where there was a slope, and thus can examine each step as we come to it.  Philosophy has done its job, which is always to assist reason in its work of gaining an awareness of what it is we humans are about.  No doubt, that work is endless and we are never going to be entirely rational.  But employing bad arguments about slippery slopes and resisting attempts to make such arguments precise has little to recommend it.


Sure, you start out attacking slippery slope arguments, but next thing you know you’ll be attacking slippery slopes.  And how long from there till you’re attacking slopes period?  Next thing we know it’ll be a flat world.  QED

By on 12/08/05 at 01:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have something at my URL about this, blaming Plato and analytic philosophy for the whole mess. (Warning: opinionated writing). My argument is the relativist one that every act is both good and bad, just as everyone is both short and tall.

Most ethics is actually defined according to relativistic, arbitrary, conventionally established social norms. (For example, “Thou shalt not kill”, supposedly the most absolute of absolutes, is qualified in every ethical system by several categories of exceptions.) But people tend to feel that conventional norms are optional and unimportant, so the argument needs to be made that the norms are absolute and natural. But they aren’t.

So in order to get people to take ethics seriously, you claim that ethics is metaphysically absolute.

Unfortunately, once you do that, you open the door for nihilistic relativism: anyone who wants to can demand that any given ethical principle be given an absolute proof before it will command respect.

Then opposing polemicists can both use slippery-slope arguments from opposite ends of the relative line. One side says everyone is tall and everyone is good, and the other side says that everyone is short and evil.

If relativism were accepted, you could start by demanding that both sides begin by locating both ends of the line, so that discussion could begin about where the middle is. But for absolutists there can be no middle.

By John Emerson on 12/08/05 at 01:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is a slippery slope argument the same thing as a ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument?  I supposed the former implies a natural tumbling down, where the latter implies a hidden and probably malign force that wants to hammer its wedge into your crack.

Practical examples: a right-wing government that says ‘we are not racist; all we want is a controlled imigration policy’.  Opposing this involves invoking a thin end of the wedge argument, doesn’t it?  “You may say that, but in fact this will be the first step on a path to concentration camps and mass explusions of folk with dark skin.” Or when Hitler said ‘I only want the Sudetenland; that is the limit of my territorial ambition in Europe’, wouldn’t it have been perfectly proper to have retorted ‘but the Sudetenland sets us on the slippery slope to German occupation of Europe?’

I appreciate that it’s at least crass and arguably ineligible to bring Hitler into an argument of this sort.  (Once I start invoking Hitler, it’s the thin end of the ‘McGowan is a Nazi massmurderer!’ wedge ...)

By Adam Roberts on 12/08/05 at 02:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kids of all ages seem to love slippery slopes, and devise all sorts of neat ways to safely navigate them. Even frail elders have been known to traverse slippery slopes, aided by crampons, handrails, or simple walking sticks. Approached with proper respect and due diligence, slippery slopes are not boundaries, just a different sort of terrain.

As an aside to J Emerson: the view that norms are metaphysically absolute (I think you mean “objective") does not imply that there is (even in principle!) an absolute proof of this status. Conflating metaphysics and epistemology probably won’t help us to understand normativity.

By on 12/08/05 at 03:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are slippery slope arguments more or less reducutio ad absurdam arguments?  You want to ban smoking?  Next thing you know we’ll all be in concentration camps!  The thing is, sometimes these arguments are completely valid, in that they are not “carrying forward the ‘logical’ conclusions to an absurd extreme,” but simply extrapolating in a fairly straightforward way.  “You want the ten commandments in school?  Next thing you’ll want the children to be praying.” Well, the same people who want the ten commandments there probably do want prayer as well.  It is the logical next step.

By on 12/08/05 at 03:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bob—well, if you have objective norms about which our knowledge is uncertain, in the functional context I mentioned, they might just as well not be objective. If your criteria for the validity of norms is objectivity or absoluteness, then any norm whose objectivity or absoluteness is uncertain will be of uncertain validity. Drop the strict criteria and the norms are valid again.

By and large, the ultimate arguments for the objectivity of norms are pragmatic. Bad things happen if norms are not thought to be objective.

By John Emerson on 12/08/05 at 03:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A close relative is the “parade of horribles” argument found in legal argumentation.  The general form of the argument is that if decision x is made in a particular case, it will have all sorts of horrible consequences throughout the legal system.  This form of argument may often be found in dissenting judicial opinions.

By on 12/08/05 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think your slippery slope is a bit of a straw man.

The term is most often used in debates over public policy, where small increased in state power and/or reductions in individual liberties are proposed as a means to a desirable social end, as in debates over gun control, anti-smoking policy, centralized tracking of air passengers as an anti-terrorism measure, and so on. I can’t think of an example when opponents of a policy have used the term “slippery slope” without then going on to explain why it is that enacting policy A would make undesirable outcome B more likely. It’s not that “slippery slope” is a form of argument, it’s that it’s a warning flag to remind us how seemingly innocuous policy decisions can lead us down an undesirable path.

And precisely because there are no “necessary” connections in the public sphere, proponants of policy can and do just deny that B may follow. For them, the prospect of B doesn’t even count as an argument against A “in its specificity here and now.” That’s why the “slippery slope” label is useful - to remind us of examples of previous A’s and B’s.

By on 12/08/05 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Speaking of Volokh, he has an interesting article on slippery slopes, arguing that there are more mechanisms for getting from a to b than are dreamed of in your current philosophy:


By on 12/08/05 at 05:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I’m going to get to Volokh in a subsequent post, where I will address the “thin edge of the wedge” variant as connected to political wrangles (since that’s where Volokh makes what seems to me his strongest argument--one that antirealist approximates pretty closely for us already.)

By john mcgowan on 12/09/05 at 03:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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