Slippery Slopes to Nowhere


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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21 Responses

  1. Avatar Barrett Brown says:

    Robert Heinlein got it right when he asserted that all intelligent men should merely disregard the monkey customs of their inferiors.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Farmer says:

    There are certain big issues of right/wrong to which the slippery slope argument doesn’t pertain — just about all issues where the moral rightness trumps laws or regulations. A bottom-line human understanding of the issue reveals the rightness of allowing two people in love to bond under the primary definition of marriage, regardless of the government’s definition by law, or the Church’s definition by their religious tenets. Neither the government nor the Church should control marriage — not if we really believe in the rights to life lierty and the pursuit of happiness. When we think of marriage, we think mostly of two people in love pledging themselves to one another — only secondarily, because of custom, we think man and woman. But customs change and should have no coerive claim on individuals. There is no danger caused by this marriage of two men or two women which could justify a slippery slope argument, except for those who fear the danger of public pressure to remove government from regulating marriage — they must think that without regulation, there will be pressure to remove government from regulating all relationships between people — therefore, incest and polygamy will be next. With incest there are biological and psychological reasons to forbid such marriages — it’s a form of coercion, because of the special relationship. But, until we can answer the question of polygamy, this will be the major justification for regulation and not allowing SSM. From my libertarian stance, I see nothing wrong with polygamy.Report

  3. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Nobody likes to think about how much of their personal morality is based on “ew, that’s gross!”Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Basically, yes.

      I’m actually tentatively okay with the idea that much of our moral sense is based on disgust. I recognize that it’s a conditioned response, and that it can change over time, particularly when compelled to. In this way, reason gradually corrects habit, and we gradually align “disgusting things” with “things that are actually harmful.” Consider, for instance, that public distaste for unwashed hands is a recent creation, and that it was prompted by the discovery of the germ theory of disease. Not a bad disgust to have at all.

      I also suspect that we need to co-opt these parts of our animal brains and make them do useful work, because if we don’t, they will not merely sit idle. They will find other, totally irrational work to do, and we will suffer because of them. Far better to experience disgust at unwashed hands than at people with different skin tones, and these might well be our only options, metaphorically speaking.Report

  4. Avatar Scott Hanley says:

    The fear of slippery slopes is not the fear of a legislative or judicial process leading by its own wicked logic to the abandonment of common sense. It’s the fear of cultural change. Or rather, the fear that the future will not always agree with you.

    I like that. Someone should write it down.

    It’s also a neat juxtaposition with the post by Rufus F. on ancient Athens and the logic of empire. Gore Vidal wrote an entire series of historical novels on the theme of republican values falling victim to the success of American empire and I, too, am more inclined (pun intended) to see slippery slopes operating in a materialist fashion rather than the idealist fashion that Jason dismisses here.Report

    • Avatar Heidegger says:

      Scott-are you, by chance, the same Scott Hanley who has a jazz show every night of the week on WCRJ?Report

      • Avatar Scott Hanley says:

        No, that’s another Scott Hanley. I know about him, but I’ve never heard his program. If I did have a public radio program, it would feature classical music and listeners would complain, “Doesn’t he know there are other instruments besides the piano?”Report

  5. The fear of slippery slopes is not the fear of a legislative or judicial process leading by its own wicked logic to the abandonment of common sense. It’s the fear of cultural change. Or rather, the fear that the future will not always agree with you.

    While I’m obviously sympathetic to this approach, I don’t think it’s fully accurate. Certainly, to the extent we’re talking about opposition to legislative change, I think it’s absolutely correct. But on the judicial process side of things, I think there can be validity to a slippery slope argument that goes beyond fear of cultural change. As applied to anti-SSM slippery slope arguments, I’m struggling to think of any that go beyond fear of cultural change when examined closely, but I can certainly imagine myriad other contexts where a slippery slope argument applied to a judicial decision could well go beyond fear of cultural change and instead be a legitimate fear of cultural change by the fiat of a judge. If the logic of a decision on a particular controversial topic would unequivocally be applicable to another arena where there is absolutely no meaningful public controversy, then the slippery slope argument against the first decision would have some validity beyond fear of legitimate cultural change. Of course, it’s fairly rare that the logic of a decision in one arena would unequivocally apply to another arena, but the point is that it’s at least possible.

    But even in such a case, it’s not the result of the decision that creates the legitimate concern of a slippery slope, but rather the logic underlying it. The slippery slope argument thus winds up being less of an argument against a particular result than it is an argument against a particular rationale.Report

    • I think I agree with most of what you have written. I’ve been reading the Volokh Conspiracy for over three years, and Mr. Volokh’s reliance on “slippery slope” arguments has always bothered me, but I, too, think there might be some plausibility of such arguments when it comes to law, based as it is, in our common law system, on precedents.Report

    • Avatar Alex Russell says:

      Mark, you say, “If the logic of a decision on a particular controversial topic would unequivocally be applicable to another arena where there is absolutely no meaningful public controversy, then the slippery slope argument against the first decision would have some validity beyond fear of legitimate cultural change.”

      This sort of “argument against a particular rationale”, as you have it, just so it’s a judge that goes by the rationale in exercising judicial fiat, is a little nonspecific. To actually play out the implication: do you mean that if the right-of-personal-autonomy rationale for the Lawrence v. Texas decision, the implication that pure disapproval/distaste/etc. is not sufficient reason for a punitive law, were applied to “an arena where there is absolutely no public controversy”, that would be an illegitimacy that would show the principle as potentially dangerous?

      In this case, your post approaches this possibility as just a matter of judicial fiat, of power being used. The principle itself is not just a matter of that, however. (No such principle would be that, barring a principle that says “the judge’s will rules”.) It’s a statement about the way in which people have liberty and have rights even though those rights can conflict, along the lines of “you have infinite right to swing your arms except that that right ends where another person’s nose begins.” If it is in fact a proper statement about the way that application of our system of rights works, then it should apply anywhere it applies, including areas with “absolutely no public controversy”, as a simple legal fact about those areas. It’s possible to dispute whether it is in fact a proper statement about rights, but the mere fact of a present public-values state of dominance in an area shouldn’t justify setting aside the question of whether the judge, in ruling, ruled rightly. Nor should the very fact that the judge ruled at all.Report

  6. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Once, as a sort of historical experiment, I made a list of places and eras that are remembered for their atmosphere of cultural libertinage. The first thing that surprised me was how consistent the ‘cultural radicalism’ was across them- nothing new under the sun for sure. But what I wasn’t exactly surprised by was that they were always bookended by generations that are remembered for their cultural conservatism. I suspect that very rarely is the result of society loosening its garters a bit that even more radical things happen in the next generation. Most generations rebel against Mom and Dad.

    Besides, there’s nothing particularly libertine about wanting to get married and grow old together anyway. When I hear people talk about SSM as a “radical assualt” on the values of America, I have to snicker at the thought that gays wanted to stage a radical assault on the values of the culture and someone connned them into thinking the most radical assault would be marriage and domestic living. Stage two: here’s how we’re really going to destroy bourgeois society- everyone brush your teeth every day! After that, we study hard and practice good table manners! And then comes the revolution.Report

    • Avatar Aaron W says:

      You mean my shiny white teeth, extensive education, manners, and sexual fidelity AREN’T destroying the values of the mainstream culture? Damnit, I’m going to need to rethink this whole revolution strategy.Report

  7. Avatar Tim Kowal says:

    “But why, one might ask, should we be afraid of where logic takes us? Shouldn’t we be grateful for the trip?”

    I think this is a little misleading. Slippery slope arguments are not made to prevent the operation of logic; they are made to indicate that the adoption of a particular value-based proposition would, if forced to accept both the proposition and the regular operation of logic, lead to the adoption of other more odious propositions. In this way, I suppose it could sometimes be a reductio ad absurdum argument. But the suggestion that those who are make slippery slope arguments are somehow opposed to logic isn’t right.Report

  8. Avatar AMW says:

    The argument here, broadly applied, smacks of subjectivism/relativism to me.

    The slippery slope argument says “Don’t allow A, because through a chain of events it will lead to Z, and Z is bad.” The rejoinder in this post seems to say, “Nah, you only think Z is bad now. But times will change, and eventually we’ll all like Z just fine.”

    So suppose someone says “Don’t allow A, because it is bad on its own merits.” And suppose the response he gets is, “Nah, you only think A is bad now. But times will change and we’ll all realize that you were wrong and A is just fine.” I wouldn’t find that rejoinder very convincing, would you?

    If I can argue that A is bad, so we shouldn’t do it, surely I could argue that Z is bad, so we shouldn’t do something that will lead to it.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      The rejoinder in this post seems to say, “Nah, you only think Z is bad now. But times will change, and eventually we’ll all like Z just fine.”

      What if it’s actually, objectively right to like Z? In the nineteenth century, people worried that allowing married women to own property would lead to women voting. And they were right — it did lead to women voting. We don’t have any problem with this at all, however.

      My argument is not that all slippery slopes are of this type. It is only that some of them certainly are. And further, if all that holds us back from embracing a logical conclusion is the fear that people around us will disapprove — then we should embrace the conclusion. This isn’t relativism at all. It’s a form of objectivism.Report

      • Avatar Bucky says:

        Jason, I don’t know about England, but here in the US women got the vote before they got the right to won property.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          Married women’s property acts were hot political issues in the mid-nineteenth century, and some states had them even before the Civil War (New York’s was in 1848). Women’s voting also arrived piecemeal, but generally later, beginning in 1869 (excluding of course the colonial exception of New Jersey, where only a few women voted anyway, in a short-lived oddity that seems to have been unintentional). A common objection to the former was that it might lead to the latter and also to the dissolution of marriage.Report

          • Avatar Bucky says:

            Thanks for the education. I’ll have to spend a few minutes doing some research.

            I remember, however, in the early 70s when my aunt was for the first time able to legally have a checking account in her name. I don’t remember where she was living at the time (TX? LA? AL? Some Southern state). It caused a minor crisis in the family because the men didn’t think that women should be allowed to handle their own money.

            Need to get on the phone and ask some questions.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

              Married women in countries governed by the English common law had all kinds of disabilities, generally stemming from the traditional doctrine of “coverture” — a married woman’s legal identity was said to be covered by her husband’s identity. At its most extreme, there was almost nothing that she could do before the law independent of her husband and not as his agent.

              Coverture came apart in bits and pieces, over a couple hundred years, at different rates and in different orders, here and there. Two of the last pieces of coverture to disappear in the United States were the prohibition on married women holding credit cards in their own name (as late as the 1970s in some places), and the recognition of the crime of marital rape (which took as long as the 1990s in a couple of states). I had not known about bank accounts per se, although I imagine it’s possible that it happened that way in some locations or at some particular banks.Report

    • Avatar AMW says:

      Certainly if Z is actually a good thing, then it’s wrong to oppose A in order to prevent Z. But Easterbrook’s point (from the excerpt above) seems to be that people won’t find Z objectionable at some point, so it’s not so bad that it happen.

      For instance, in 2001 I might have said, “Don’t create a Transportation Security Administration. Ten years from now they’ll be forcing us to choose between taking nudie pics of us or getting groped!”

      To which Easterbrook might reply, “So what? Ten years from now people will be so used to being treated like cattle before boarding a plane that they’ll take the nudie pics in stride.”Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        Your point is well taken, but it could easily run either way. It might be that I’m not sufficiently enlightened now to appreciate a future conclusion; it might be that people in the future will indeed be depraved. I can’t convincingly place myself in the nineteenth century and look forward to the enlightened European twentieth century — being in the future is no guarantee of rightness. But it’s also no guarantee of wrongness.Report