The Slippery Slope of the Slippery Slope


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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131 Responses

  1. Avatar Will Truman says:

    If we let wedding photographers discriminate against gay couples, we’d have to let hotels discriminate against them. Even government employees might insist on that right. No, you can’t carve out an exception for wedding industries. It would have to apply to everybody, so it can’t apply to anybody.

    Letting religious-based institutions like hospitals refuse to pay for birth control? We can’t have that, because private companies will insist on the same thing. Anybody and everybody will think they have a right to deny birth control.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Except that these things aren’t true.

      We can and do make exceptions for things like that all the time. We won’t let a hotel refuse to hold a Jewish wedding even though they regularly do host Christian weddings. But we will do so for every Diocese in the country. We don’t collectively say, “Hey, if my friends can’t have a Muslim wedding ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, what’s to stop the Holiday Inn from having a “No Muslims Allowed” policy?” What’s more, should the time ever come when we’re actually having a public discussion about whether or not business should be allowed to refuse to Muslim customers, it will not have been because we told Christian churches they could refuse to hold non-Christian ceremonies in their buildings.

      We tend to forget this because we like to think the Universe is more naturally ordered than it is, but every law and cultural norm we have — every single one — is just a point on a three dimensional map where we have collectively stuck a flag and declared it where we want to be at this moment. SSAs work when you pretend that complexity doesn’t exist, and that everything in the world — both realized and potential — exists on a short, one-dimensional line, where STATUS QUO sits at one end and TOTAL RUIN on the other.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        “And therein lies the problem with allowing businesses, employees, and people in the public square to refuse to serve, do business, or offer governmental services to other people based on their religious beliefs about them. If a pizza parlor in Indiana’s argument to refuse to serve gays and lesbians — in any capacity in which they would apply serve straight people — is right and just because of the importance of religious liberty, then so too is Bob Jone’s argument of 1960. For that matter, so too are businesses that might put up signs saying they don’t serve Jews or Muslims.” –Tod KellyReport

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          Yes, because you have to pick a point on the map. And I believe that our current placement of that point is correct.

          If I were truly arguing about the dangers of slippery slopes, I would have argued that the Catholic Church should be forced to perform (or host) gay, Muslim, and Jewish weddings. Because if we let them discriminate, it’s just a slippery slope, right?Report

          • Avatar Will Truman says:

            That was, more or less, what I argued at the time. That we’re picking a point on a spectrum. My point being slightly different than yours, but still a point. This was disagreed to not just on the importance of pizza at a wedding, but because Bob Jones University et al. That if we tolerate one, we’d need to tolerate the other. Arguments of every side of the issue lent themselves to fear of the next things over. A, B, and C.Report

  2. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Is it a slippery slope argument when the embrace of one thing legitimizes some other thing that you were erstwhile skeptical about? Or should that be labeled something else?

    To wit – both President Obama and Presumptive Next President Clinton seem to now be peachy keen with the idea of no-fly lists and terror watch lists, advocating as they are to expand their scope to gun purchase background checks.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Right, if there’s a valid causal relation, it’s not a slippery slope argument, it’s just a causal argument about (perhaps) unintended consequences.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        Isn’t that just defining things to suit your conclusion? Its a slippery slope argument only when it fails?Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          No, the conclusion of a slippery slope argument can turn out to be true. Hell, maybe medical marijuana leads to much higher rates of crack use. I doubt it, but it could turn out to be the case. We’re talking about dynamic systems with multiple layers of causality operating on different time scales. It’s hard to predict what will happen.

          However, even if a slippery slope argument turns out to be the case, it will be fallacious under two circumstances: if, at the time the argument was made, there was no good reason to think that state a (the one being argued against would lead to state z (the state at the bottom of the slippery slope), and if the possibility of z is taken by itself as a reason to reject a.

          For example, “We know the government tends to misuse personal information once it has it, so we shouldn’t let them use it for reason x if we don’t want them to use it for reason y, because it will quite simple for them to do so once they have it for x” doesn’t meet either of those conditions, so it isn’t a slippery slope argument, while “We know the government doesn’t stop. Once we give it an inch, it will take a mile. So if we don’t want them to implant ID chips in our necks, we shouldn’t let them create a no-fly list.” That argument meets both criteria.

          Look, a valid slippery slope argument is probably just a reductio, and there is nothing formally or informally fallacious about those, right? If there is, we’re in trouble. If not a reductio, it may just be a simple case of empirical induction. “In the past, when we’ve let the government do x, they’ve done y. It stands to reason, then, that if we let them do x now they’ll also do y. If we don’t want them to do y we shouldn’t let them do x” is such an argument. Where they become (informally) fallacious is when the argument is either an unwarranted/invalid reductio or the empirical case is tentative at best, but the argument wants the conclusion to do all the work anyway.Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            Right, but calling them different things seems ad-hoc. The argumentative form is the same. It is the particular substantive claims being made and the grounds adduced for those claims that make the argument work or fail. That is to say, the argument fails because the of the plausibility (or lack thereof) of the causal premise. But, since the argumentative form is the same whether or not the causal premise is plausible, it seems appropriate to call it a slippery slope argument either way.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              It’s not ad hoc. It’s evaluative. A slippery slope argument is an informally fallacious one. We evaluate arguments in part to determine if they are fallacious. We use various criteria to do so. This is what informal logic entails.

              What would make it ad hoc is if I came up with the evaluative criteria after hearing the arguments.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                Let’s examine this shall we. The form of a slippery slope argument is the following:

                1. A ->[Causal chain] -> Z
                2. Z is bad
                3. If Z is bad, this badness must be weighed against any prima facie goodness of A
                4. The badness of Z outweighs the goodness of A
                5. There are no further considerations for or against A.
                Conclusion: A is all-things-considered bad.

                The above argument is the slippery slope argument. We would call it the SSA when premise 1 is implausible. It should therefore be called the slippery slope argument even when the first premise is plausible. Also note that the argument as spelled out is valid. Casual internet arguments rarely make the argumentative form explicit (and that tends to make internet arguments bad) but nothing really hangs on that.

                Now, we may or may not have good reasons for thinking that [causal chain] is true. But whether or not it is true (i.e. the argument is sound) it does not follow that it is not a slippery slope argument.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Yeah, you’ve just offered a different set of criteria, and a set that will include any reductio or induction from past examples. If you want to define a fallacy so broadly, you’ll find you’ve lost a whole bunch of perfectly fine arguments.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                But I’m not defining the slippery slope argument as a fallacy. I’m saying that its a valid argument. It just turns out that people who employ the argument of use implausible causal chains (or omit them entirely)Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Except the slippery slope, as it is used in informal logic, is a fallacy. If you want to say it is just a form of argument, then you are using the term in a novel way, and while that’s fine rhetorically in some contexts (it will let you show the relationship between various types of casual arguments), it will be a source of confusion more generally.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I think I’m confused about what you guys are arguing, so I’ll use an example to try to clear things up. Remember Singer’s drowning man thought experiment as elucidatory (heh!) of a positive obligation to help others when the cost to a person is small? One of the criticisms of that argument was that the principle upon which that argument rests (something like: positive obligation + small cost = moral obligation to act) created a slippery slope argument in which there was no way to determine when the conditions under which “small cost” were operative, entailing that if accepted the argument would require everyone to give away all their surplus stuff. In other words, Singer’s argument was, in fact, a slippery slope leading to, not necessarily a contradiction, but an absurdity.

                Singer’s response (as I “recall” – scare quotes) was to grant that the argument *is* slippery but that we can put the brakes on anywhere we like once we recognize that a positive obligation exists. Lots of people found that response unsatisfying.

                On your view, given what you’ve said here, was Singer’s argument actually a slippery slope, or was the claim that it was mistaken?Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                That’s using slippery slope to refer to a (perfectly valid) reductio. I’d rather not do that, because there’s already a name for it and it just sews confusion. Singer’s low cost premise was underspecified, and therefore allowed a bunch of unpleasant applications. It’s not a slippery slope, it’s just a bad premise that can easily be shown to be so with a simple reductio.

                Added: there is a colloquial use of “slippery slope” applied to positions. “That is a slippery slope.” It’s meant as a criticism not of the argument, but actually says “your position is bad because it leads to bad things.” This just makes things more confusing.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Thanks, Chris. I thought that was what you were gettin at.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Good, because I just made myself more confused. 😉Report

          • Avatar Morat20 says:

            What about a common argument against universal registration, which boils down to “If we register guns, then later the government knows who has the guns and can confiscate them”.

            Is that a slippery slope? I don’t think so, offhand. (I think it’s a pretty crap argument for a lot of reasons, but not because it’s a slippery slope. I mean for starters, it’s either Constitutional or not for the government to seize your guns, and if it IS then your objection is that the government can enforce the law efficiently. And if it isn’t, then….the gun registry is a bit of a red herring, since the law is not a valid one anyways).Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

              I’m curious if this has ever been tested in court?Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                What? There’s no universal registry, guns haven’t been banned. Some guns are illegal, and the police confiscate them when they’re found. Other people own guns who aren’t allowed (felons in many states) at least pre-Heller, and I think the police destroy all of them eventually anyways.

                So the government CAN ban individual ownership of certain types of guns, and can and has seized them in the past.

                Which is apparently perfectly constitutional, because while there’s a lot of griping about how arbitrary the legal/illegal gun definition can be, very few people seem to feel it’s an unconstitutional act for the government to seize, oh, RPG’s or belt-fed machine guns or just regular pistols from people who aren’t licensed to have them or who, per state or federal law, can’t have them. (I have no idea how many, if any, guns exist that civilians can’t own if they jump through all the hoops for the necessary licenses. Not really a huge gun guy).

                So the real argument is “where to draw the line”. The anti-registry thing seems to be basically an argument that if guns are registered, then if/when the line is changed (laws do change) then the government will be very efficient in confiscating any previously legal weapons (the assumption being no grandfathering, no grace period for licensing, etc. Which seems..unlikely, but let’s grant the case). that are now illegal.

                Which isn’t an argument about a registry, but an argument about how illegal/legal is defined. With the weird assumption that “guns are different” and there’s some specific reason that if the gun is suddenly illegal, you should get to keep it anyways but NOT be like a criminal or something.

                I mean I get not wanting your currently legal possession to be suddenly declared illegal. And I totally get fighting to keep the status quo. But I just don’t get the connection between that fight and registration, unless you just accept the notion that if you lose the legal/illegal fight, you should still get to keep your gun and the registration law makes that harder.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                CA would be the test case since it does have a registry, it does have a list of illegal arms that is arbitrary/political (certain arms are banned because of gang/criminal affiliation, not because its a class of especially dangerous arms), and it tends to change the list on a whim with no grandfathering.

                I’ll have to look into if there have been any challenges to that behavior.Report

              • Avatar Guy says:

                I believe the argument put forward is that a registry is a stalking horse for banning some/all currently legal weapons or otherwise punishing gun owners. This is not true for “thoughtful gun control” proponents, but the waters are muddied by the existence of advocates for whom it is true.Report

              • Avatar Damon says:

                The anti registry argument is that it increases the likelihood of gov’t confiscation, this being the beginning of the slope (not the slippery slope) to totalitarianism. The buttress to this being that there’s been a lot of countries that have started with a registry, then confiscation, then ended up butchering their own populations.

                ” it’s either Constitutional or not for the government to seize your guns, and if it IS then your objection is that the government can enforce the law efficiently.” Yeah, not really. It was constitutional to own slaves and to make black people sit at the back of the bus, etc. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about where you draw the line on ceding power to “the gov’t”.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                Except that has nothing to DO with a gun registry.

                The “draw the line” argument would be about legal/illegal guns. The registry is entirely unrelated. The only way to make the registry related is to move to “legal/illegal” (“they’ll take my guns!”) and then state that the registry will make that easier.

                Well yes, I suppose it would. It would ALSO make a lot of other things easier, and some things harder, and all of that has absolutely no bearing on a later argument over “Should Gun X be legal/illegal”.

                I register to vote, for instance. In the future, if voting is rendered illegal, that means the government can easily come get me for the crime of voting. However, that has jack all to do with the concept of “registering to vote” and you’d probably look on in amazement if someone got up and proposed repealing voting registry because it makes dictatorship easier, because future dictators will know exactly who voted and where to find them.Report

              • Avatar Damon says:

                No, no it’s not. The registry is believed to be the came’s nose in the tent. The tent is confiscation. The only connection to banning guns is that it’s a sub argument for specific guns along the path to full bans.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                So i guess irony is dead.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I think it’s something like “Have registries been used as a precursor to X in the past?” and, if the answer is “yes”, they do a leaping stampede to “WELL THAT’S WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN THIS TIME!” and won’t even listen to arguments that point out that it didn’t always lead to that.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                Query: Where have registries been used a precursor to totalitarian oppression and genocide in the past?

                FYI: No, nazi germany is not an answer. That is bad history.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Oh, is that what we’re arguing? I thought that the topic was whether registries were used as precursors to confiscation.

                I agree that Nazi Germany’s ban was something more like “most people can buy guns, just not the people on this government list”.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                Arguing??? No, i was asking what examples there were of registries being the precursor to oppression.

                Nazi Germany is not an example of that though. There have been a few brief histories of gun control there since the Nazi’s have become a talking point of the NRA. Guns were controlled after the Versailles treaty and by the Weimer Republic as part of the disarmament of Germany after ww1 and fear of rebellions like the beer hall putsch. The Nazi’s loosened regs on owning guns allowing many more people to own them, just not jews. But the nazi’s did not collect guns leading to oppression. I am wondering if there any better examples.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Oh, I certainly don’t have any examples of it leading to oppression at my fingertips.

                Just examples of it leading to confiscation.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                Well okay then. That certainly doesn’t grease the slippery slope.

                What are the examples of a registry leading to confiscation?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Well, the Canadian Firearms Act of 1995 is a typical example. Here’s from the Wikipedia: The way the Firearms act was written allowed for firearms to be arbitrarily reclassified. As such when a firearm is reclassified to prohibited the owner loses the permission to own it, and it must be handed into law enforcement for destruction. There is no requirement in the act for compensation of property. Refusal to give up a firearm can lead to lengthy and costly criminal trials, and jail time.

                Recently, Buffalo New York started cross-checking gun permits against death records and “collecting the guns” from the deceased. California, for example, had a gun registry in 1989 and there was controversy over the SKS. In 1999, they deemed that the SKS shouldn’t have been allowed. They used the registry to confiscate the bad guns (A favorite of Korean shop owners).

                Do those examples count?Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                Why yes of course they count. My question really was just a request for more information not some sort of challenge. Do they impress me as a lock solid case for registry leading to confiscation, no of course not. Guns are still legal in those places, although with the licensing in the local/Canadian area. None of those places are dictatorships or slaughtering their own people. There don’t seem to be examples of registries leading to totalitarian dictatorship. I’m sure the response could be “not yet.”

                It is nice to see that examples from foreign countries are useful, at least in certain very specific circumstances which means when not talking about health care, but that is a side point.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                I think what you’d need, really, is an explanation of how registration is a key step in confiscation.

                I’m pretty sure the government, were it of a mind to confiscate guns, could do so pretty effectively without a registry. The latter would make it easier, sure.

                Which means registration is neither a critical or required step to confiscation. Add in that reasoning for registering guns stands entirely on it’s own (whether it work the way proponents want is immaterial. The proponents of registration have actual arguments and goals that registration both supports AND don’t involve the word “confiscate”).

                So I’m pretty sure “registering guns is a slippery slope to all guns being banned” only works if (1) the only reason to register guns is for banning and (2) they can’t be banned or confiscated without a registry.

                Neither is true.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Could I merely use examples of how a registry *WAS* used? Am I stuck having to prove that it couldn’t be done without a registry?Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                I honestly wanted to know if it was a slippery slope argument or some other form of argument.

                I didn’t really want to rehash gun control.

                I don’t think it’s slippery slope — registering guns isn’t an incremental step to banning guns, but I don’t know what to call “If we do this, later if we do a totally different thing, the first thing will make the second thing easier. Even if both things can be done independently, and indeed we could do the second thing without ever doing the first thing.”

                Like, I could see “Banning type of Gun X” being used as a slippery slope argument to “Banning all guns” because you have banned a type of gun, which one could argue sets a precedent to ban other types of guns (although going from “type” to “all” is what I think makes it a slippery slope, because that’s a big step).Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                What is ironic, as i noted above, and funny is how after this long post and Jon’s post about the SS this is all back to ” if X happens, we’re headed for a totalitarian dictatorship which will kill heaps of people”. This is exactly why SS arguments gets rightly mocked. They are the paranoid projections of peoples worst fears deployed as arguments against things far far away from the fear. It isn’t about debating the actual proposal, its “OMG this proposal will kill us all in just a few thousand simple steps which i can clearly predict.”Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                It’s only “all about that” if you choose for it to be.

                Also, are we back to “I oppose registration because it will lead to confiscation” as being a slippery slope argument?Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                I’m not. I don’t thin it is a slippery slope argument. I think it’s logically false, but not as a slippery slope.

                It’s because gun registries and confiscation don’t have anything to do with each other. Requiring gun registration does not, in my mind, have anything to do with future decisions over what firearms are legal or illegal. It does have a slight relationship to enforcement of said laws — it being somewhat easier if you have a registry.

                But a universal gun registry is not necessary for gun confiscation, and the existence of a registry does not seem to place any weight at all on future decisions on where to draw the line between legal or illegal firearms.

                There’s no slope to slide down. They’re separate hills, as it were.

                Or maybe it is a slippery slope, but I can’t see it because I see registration and confiscation as so utterly distinct (politically, pragmatically, etc) that I can’t conceive of them being connected. We can outlaw guns without registration. We can outlaw them with registration. The people who want to register guns have entirely valid reasons that don’t include “outlawing guns”.

                The only way they’re connected is via paranoia.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                One is used as a mechanism for the other. It may not be necessary, or sufficient, but they’re certainly related. Among the biggest questions when it comes to gun confiscations is “How will we collect the guns that are out there if we don’t know where they are?”

                It’s a really big question with or without a registry, but the registry makes it easier.

                Without that answer, a gun sales ban may occur that does not include confiscation of existing weapons. Jaybird has posted several cases where registries were used to collect guns. A counter-example would be the assault weapons ban, which did not collect the guns that were out there. It may be entirely unrelated that there was no national registry to use for it, but it may not be unrelated. Enforcement is a huge issue with any ban that includes confiscation.

                To draw another example, no-fly lists. There’s nothing about a no-fly list that has anything to do with guns. But the existence of the no-fly list helps make preventing people on it from getting guns an easier argument to make. (And in addition to that, one measure is being used to justify another.)

                Acknowledging that there is a relationship between a registry and confiscation does not preclude one from supporting the registry (even if they oppose confiscation), but there is a relationship that’s far less tenuous than the relationship between (for instance) background checks and confiscation.Report

              • Avatar CJColucci says:

                Among the biggest questions when it comes to gun confiscations is “How will we collect the guns that are out there if we don’t know where they are?”

                There are all sorts of ways — most of them a lot scarier than having someone check a registry and visit the registered owners.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                The simplest one is just selling ammo, of course. Mailorder.
                Preferably with jackbooted thugs (screens out the sane ones).Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                @will-truman “Also, are we back to “I oppose registration because it will lead to confiscation” as being a slippery slope argument?”

                I think it portably depends on the context. It certainly can be a slippery slope argument.

                Being the guy who listens to smatterings of talk radio here and there, however, I have come to think of this argument as one that falls more often into the “conspiracy theory” category.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                I shouldn’t have put the word “will” in there. That at least arguably does make it Slippery Slope Fallacy by even the narrowest definition.

                “I oppose registration because it will increase the likelihood of confiscation” would have been more appropriate phrasing.Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                Ah. Got it.

                That seems less a slippery slope argument. Or at least it does to my ears. I think this is because by using some form of “might” it asks a separate and equally valid question, as opposed to creating a boogey man to avoid debating the original question at hand.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      I think it is not.

      The basis of the SSA is enveloped in the thought that, “If we would never have done A, then B and C would never have happened, and because of that we would never have gotten to D.” What you’re describing here, however, is a situation when multiple things are happening for a large variety of reasons, where some of those reasons are connected and some are not. Yes, Obama and Clinton are for tighter gun control, and its possible they might be more successful than others in the past who have tried the same.

      To give value to the SSA in your example, you would have to say, “If we hadn’t implemented a no-fly zone or a terror watch list, this gun control stuff would never gotten traction.” Instead, I would argue, what has brought gun control to the forefront of the political debate is a series of horrible (and much covered) mass shootings. This reaction would have happened with or without no-fly zones.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Hmmm… I’m relatively certain that if, at the time of the no-fly list, someone had said “My concern is that this list will be used in the future for things like gun confiscation”… that would be called a slippery slope argument. The person making the argument might even say “It’s a slippery slope.”

        It might technically not be one, per Chris’ statement above, but I am pretty sure it would colloquially be considered one.

        The colloquial definition, which is what I was more-or-less using in my post, is “An argument against the current proposed government action on the basis of proposed government actions that might or would follow.” (At least, in the sense that we talk about it.)Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          Even if one doesn’t buy that there’s a causal connection, that’s really iffy as a “slippery slope argument.” I mean, it’s a pretty straighforward, “If you give the government the information, they’ll probably misuse it” claim, with a specific domain in which people expect them to misuse it next. If on the other hand you’d said, “A no fly list? What’s next, implanted ID tags?!” That’d be a slippery slope argument, because nothing about a list implies or could directly lead to an ID tag.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Ok, I’ll buy a difference in nomenclature, but I think it does determine who gets affected and how, the whole path dependence of policy choices. For another example, the France emergency measures put in place last month that were used to round up the usual suspects of climate change activists at this current conference.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          I would argue that you’re confusing separate choices with a cascading string of causalities.

          Countries can be on alert for terrorists (or any other criminal activity) and allow people to make protests regarding climate change. More than “can,” actually, because this very state of being happens in multiple countries all the time.

          Arresting peaceful protesters is a terrible policy decision. Period. It is not something that naturally follows crackdowns on criminal activity, or there would have been zero public protests about anything in the US from at least 2001-2008.Report

          • Avatar Kolohe says:

            “It is not something that naturally follows crackdowns on criminal activity”

            Conversely, Chicago cops queued up for the quest to quell rising crime in the 60s had no qualms of quashing hippies at the 68 convention.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          Seems the real issue here is an improper conflating of True SSA & Ideologically/Politically Inconvenient/Unpleasant Potential Logical Consequences.Report

  3. Avatar Murali says:

    The slippery slope argument does not just argue that there will be bad consequences down the line, its that if we do X1 which is a relatively innocuous instance of actions of X type, we (or our descendants) will down the line also do X10 which is a much more horrible action of X type. As Will mentions, it doesn’t always happen, but it doesn’t never happen either. And when it does happen, it is not merely coincidental. Will actually identifies particular mechanisms and enabling conditions that would make a given slope slippery.

    The argumentative form is valid. If doing X is going to make you okay with doing things that you now still find horrible, you’re going to have trade off your future evil against the current presumptively good thing you want to do. But note, this is especially aimed at moderates. Let me give an example. There are very few full social liberals in Singapore. There are lots of conservatives. There are also people who are moderate by Singaporean definition but still conservative by American and European standards. As you should know by now, gay sex is still illegal in Singapore. As mentioned, very few people are okay with equality for gay people all the way up to gay marriage. There are, however, more people who are uncomfortable with making gay sex illegal (or wouldn’t care one way or another what people do in their bedrooms) but who are uncomfortable with gay people adopting children or gay marriage. As society liberalises more people from the arch conservative side are going to move to the second group. Here is the slippery slope argument: If you legalise gay sex, soon you will be legalising adoption by gay couples and even gay marriage. You are right that this argument is not going to convince a single liberal. But it is going to convince a lot of wavering conservatives and so-called moderates. Why? because the only very recently somewhat conservative (for a bunch of white people) US has headed the way of the dissolute Europeans. So, empirically, denial of the consequences looks disingenuous. Of course as liberals, we will say that there is nothing wrong with gays marrying.

    To bring this to the US situation. Back when gay marriage looked like a pipe dream, people were very quick to deny any slippery slope between gay marriage and incestuous or plural marriages. But the same arguments that justify legalising gay marriage also justify legalising incestuous marriage. Moreover, the main worry about consanguinity is a horrible eugenicist argument (in that you have to be a horrible eugenicist to make the argument and exaggerates the likelihood of genetic diseases). Even if my children were highly likely to be born severely disabled, the state has no right to prevent me from having children. Moreover, once enough people know first cousins who are married*, enough people will be ok with cousins marrying that laws preventing the marriage of first cousins will be universally repealed. Moreover, the eugenicist argument isn’t going to apply to siblings of the same sex. It may be that now enough people find it icky that its not likely to be legalised in the near future, but it seems absolutely silly to deny that legalisation of gay marriage has opened the way for the legalisation of sibling marriage and made such legalisation in the future much more likely.

    It may not entirely be easy to tell which slopes are slippery and which are not. But it doesn’t follow that no slopes are slippery nor does it follow that we can never tell in advance which slopes are in fact slippery. In fact, since the last 300 years has been nothing but a success for social liberalism, it is highly unlikely that the social liberal slope is not slippery. So yes, one day in the future, progressives will fight for the right of siblings (or for that matter uncle/aunt/parent to niece/nephew/son/daughter) to marry.

    Here is another one. People now regard it as a fait accompli that people in their early teens will have sex. Some time in the future, the age for sexual consent will be lowered. You can see the signs: Romeo and Juliet exceptions (which everyone here, including myself, agrees are a good idea) is the start. When those exceptions spread to all states, people will get used to it. The age gap permitted by the exception will start to increase. Eventually enough people will be comfortable with teens having sex with people much older than them that high age of consent will look antiquated (and by then it may very well be the case)

    *Well, in India, it is still not un-common for first cousins to marry. Also one of the words for groom is “mama” which also refers to the maternal uncle. Having more couples like these migrate to the US will mean that people will be more aware of such couples.Report

    • First cousin marriage used to be quite common in Western countries. In the US, it’s legality differs by state, but most states where it’s illegal recognize such marriages performed in other states.

      Paternal uncle marriage used to be standard among Portuguese royalty when a king died leaving behind only daughters: his eldest daughter would marry his eldest brother, and have kids who were both descended from the king and full members of the ruling house. And then there were the Spanish Habsburgs.Report

    • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

      Murali: the main worry about consanguinity is a horrible eugenicist argument (in that you have to be a horrible eugenicist to make the argument and exaggerates the likelihood of genetic diseases).

      That many very intelligent and well-read people think that the horrible eugenicist argument is the best or only or main argument against incestuous marriage, and that there is only an “icky-ness” problem standing between us and the next positions on the slippery slope, says less about slippery slope arguments than about the decline in understanding of the institution of marriage and change in perceptions of the role of family in society.

      We may still be far too early in this process to assess the “300 years of success of social liberalism” – whether, for instance, the epoch has run its course or in fact has much further to go, and, if the latter, precisely where. Advocates for the supposed “next logical step” after same sex marriage do not often consider in detail the implications and attached presumptions – and are generally as unprepared to discuss them cogently as most on both sides of the debated proved to be in relation to same sex marriage. It is, in short, uncertain what “marriage” could mean for a society in which polyamorous marriage and incestuous marriage were not just widely acceptable, but practical.

      Still, though I disagree with some aspects of Murali’s treatment of the question, I agree with his major point contra the OP’s thesis. I would add that, when the slippery slope is, in fact the best argument available, or at least a good argument, it may be because the import, in the form of a prediction, conforms to accurate intuitions regarding human nature whose bases discussants are incapable of articulating effectively in any other way. So, for example, they believe or may even be said to know that admitting incest into family life, which is important to them or the most important thing to them, would be destructive. It’s easier to seize upon a bad, pseudo-objective medical argument and otherwise point toward a slippery slope, than to produce a sound analysis of a complex problem. That people are unable to explain or justify their conclusions in terms that others deem adequately convincing does not necessarily mean that they are wrong.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko says:

        It’s one thing for some people to be unable to come up with an effective, rational argument for a given proposition. It is entirely another thing when nobody, despite years of time and a great deal of money and effort invested, can concoct one.Report

          • Avatar Don Zeko says:

            I’m referring specifically to your argument about SSM. Maybe you can have a situation where most people have an intuition that they can’t ratonally defend, but which reflects a perfectly defensible argument. But if, as was the case with SSM, you have a moral intuition for which nobody can concoct a constitutionally sensible argument even after years and years of trying, that suggests it’s not so likely that a defensible, rational reason for that position exists.Report

            • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

              Don Zeko: I’m referring specifically to your argument about SSM.

              Which argument would that be? It’s interesting that you see me having made an “argument about SSM.” Other than to decline to get into an argument about SSM with Jaybird, I offered some general characterizations of statements or positions of SSM proponents and opponents: On the non-acceptability of civil unions to the former, and regarding what I suggested was a lack of cogency in arguments made by both sides. As for the rest of your comment, I wouldn’t presume the equivalence of “constitutionally sensible” with “defensible [and] rational” even if I were to accept your characterization of the debate.Report

      • Incest is a religious and legal concept, not a biological one. In Christian Europe 500 years or so ago, marriage between first cousins was common, while marriage between a man and his brother’s widow, which of course involves no blood ties [1], was considered suspect and required a dispensation from the Church. Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was his elder brother’s Arthur’s widow, and a dispensation was granted ostensibly on the grounds that she and Arthur had never lived together, so they weren’t “really” married. (The fact that two powerful ruling houses wanted it didn’t hurt either.) Naturally, years later, when Henry wanted to divorce her, he made the argument that their marriage had been illegal because she was his brother’s widow. (And didn’t get it, because in this case the more powerful of the two houses was opposed.)

        Given the speed with which the 16th and 17th Century Spanish Habsburgs, with the full permission of the Church, inbred themselves out of existence, it’s difficult to argue that our modern age is uniquely careless about such things.

        1. In fact, if there’s any biological argument, it’s that an uncle is likely to be a better stepfather to his nephews and nieces than someone wholly unrelated.Report

        • Avatar North says:

          Also it’s very easy to come up with sound reasons for prohibitions on incest that don’t even depend on medical claims. There’re perfectly good reasons to not wish to encourage a social sexualization of family units beyond fears of flipper babies.

          Polygamy, meanwhile, is a red herring, and a separate issue. Polygamists need to make their case on their own and have pretty much the same degree of difficulty before them that they had prior to same sex marriage being accepted. Attempts to hitch Polygamy onto the SSM wagon has always felt rather disingenuous.Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            Does the legalisation of SSM amount to an encouragement of homosexual relationships? If not, then why would the legalisation of incestuous marriage (hereafter IM) encourage the sexualisation of family relationships?

            As with SSM, the question with IM is: what right does the state have to forbid such sexualisation? Remember, incest ≠ paedophilia. No rights violation is going on. The mere fact that some other siblings somewhere else get married does not change anything about the relationships I have with my siblings.Report

            • Avatar North says:

              Does the legalization of SSM amount to the encouragement of longer term SSM relationships? I’d say that’s a big yes.

              I’d also say a pretty solid argument can be made on social norms that discourage the viewing of close relatives as potential sexual partners. While I willingly grant that incest =/= pedophilia the former certainly enriches the potential for the latter. The west’s social prohibitions on incest and the laws that are grounded on them are predicated on those concerns. After all the eugenic objection is only really salient in the case of repeated persistent inbreeding.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:


                What does “enriches the potential” mean here? What makes you think that people who are attracted to others some of whom may be family members are constitutively more likely to be attracted to children? Paedophiles like other sexual predators target opportunistically. It so happens that family members tend to present the most opportunities for predation. That said, nothing about legalising incest entails legitimising paedophilia. Romeo and Juliet laws on the other hand…Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Murali, in the west at least in modern times a circle has been drawn about close relations with everyone inside that circle being discouraged very emphatically by both law and society from considering anyone else in that circle as a potential romantic or sexual partner. It is no coincidence that the people underage children spend most of their time with overlap heavily with the people in said circle.

                I think it goes without saying that if one eliminates that taboo and sexualization of the immediate family occurs then the barriers to pederastia in general are reduced. Frankly I’d think it’d be harder to argue otherwise.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              For the record, I would be more than happy enough to provide a defense of people marrying their siblings, or parents, or whomever they wish (so long as they are not already married) that would rely heavily on such things as inheritance issues, taxation issues, joint property issues, so on and so forth and never, for a second, touch on issues of people totally Doing It.

              This whole issue of tying sex to marriage is based on outdated concepts of breeding and avoiding bastardry.

              We’re totally beyond that now.

              It’s almost 2016, for goodness’ sake.Report

        • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

          Is that comment supposed to have something in particular to do with something I said?

          I don’t think that incest is a simply religious and legal concept. It is a biological concept in that it is primarily defined by biological relationships, but I don’t see what you think the relevance of your argument is to mine, assuming you were in fact replying to my comment.Report

          • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

            (The reason I said “primarily” rather than “exclusively” defined by biological relationships is that, although the specific taboo is defined biologically, the concept is, in an informative way, extended to relationships between siblings and others who are not genetically related, but are included in the same family via marriage.)Report

          • Historically, incest hasn’t been defined in strictly biological terms. That it’s included in-laws as well as blood relatives is a point for North’s suggestion that the taboo is more about not sexualizing family relations than about genetic disasters.Report

            • Avatar Murali says:

              But its unclear why its any of the state’s business whether one’s family relations are sexualised or not. Just as its none of the state’s business whether the relation between two adult men or two adult women is sexualised or not.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                One can make that argument Murali, but I don’t see any causal linkages between incest and homosexuality. It’s like saying if we permit public drinking then we’ll also encourage the wearing of white after labor day.

                As with polygamy SSM and homosexuality opponents love to try and hitch these separate issues up to the conversation and require that they be denounced and proven unacceptable as if there’s some necessary obligation on SSM supporters to do so. I reject the maneuver because it’s not germane to the issue of SSM beyond the fact that the institution of marriage is a fluid and constantly changing one.Report

              • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

                The notion that the state has no “business” in regard to family relations is another example of the complete imaginary inversion of the human concept heretofore. The state has no business whatsoever, it does not exist at all, except as a product of “family” and as an instrument for the protection, sustenance, and re-production of “families,” however organized or “conceived.” The classic (as well as actual historical) construction of the state is as “family business” and of the political state as a family of families. Given the related prevalent and nearly universal attachment to the “natural family,” as the crucible of identity itself, it might actually be helpful to discuss the matter more like a Conehead: For “family,” substitute “human productive and reproductive, central identity-forming and purpose-assigning unit,” or some such – then try to imagine the state without (or perhaps as per the Republic, and its descendants, against) this unit.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                I’m with CK generally here. State involvement in family arrangements is pretty much as old as states. Maybe older.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                But, in a way, that is the liberal impulse drawn to its natural (and I think correct) conclusion. The liberal requirement that the state justify its coercive policies without appealing to disputable conceptions of the good sharply limits what the state may do. In this case, as with SSM, the state is forbidden from discriminating against couples on the basis of prior familial relationship (being the same sex in the case of SSM).

                You talked about a circle drawn around permissible sexual relations. Western society until 50 years ago (well into the modern period) drew a very small circle. In addition to forbidding sexual relations with family members, that circle also excluded people of different ethnic groups as well as people of the same sex. The history of sexual liberation has been the “discovery” that these lines are arbitrary from a liberal point of view. It seems really bizarre that you don’t see that the arguments you make against legalising incestuous marriage parallel those made by conservatives against SSM and interracial marriage.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                this was aimed at @northReport

              • Avatar North says:

                Parallel? Yes sure but not related. Womens rights within marriage, divorce, SSM those are all liberalizations of marriage, relaxation of the previous strictures, widening of the circle. Permitting incestuous relations or polygamous marriages or is similar in that it’s a widening of the circle (though in the latter it’s more of making the circle into a polyhedron) but they’re their own separate issues. They are not dependent on SSM or womens lib or anything else. Approving one doesn’t make the others more or less likely.Report

            • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

              My argument is similar to North’s, although I think your concept of “the biological” is too narrow. I just gave an example in the comment within parentheses of the more commonly observed contemporary extension of the taboo – the Greg and Marsha problem. They are not genetically related, but, if they formed and acted upon sexual interest in each other, it would be big and one suspects highly unwelcome news for the Bunch.Report

        • Avatar Kolohe says:

          [1a] someone needed to tell King Claudius and Scar Taka that.

          [1b] wasn’t it the case in ancient Jewish law that the marriage between a widow and her brother in law wasn’t only allowed, it was mandatory?Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      @murali The error that you make, I think, is that you’re looking at complex social patterns through the lens of simple formulas. Take your marriage example — though for my own ease, allow me to bring it over to the U.S.

      Fifty years ago there was a strong push to keep interracial marriages illegal. Even after Loving, numerous states continues to both keep anti-miscegenation on the books and enforce them. There were various slippery slope arguments for why interracial marriage should remain verboten, but the one that actually came true was that, eventually, two men would indeed be able to marry.

      Now, there are a couple of ways you can look at this history. One is from the Static World POV, noted above in the OP, where one (incorrectly) assumes that but for this one decision, all will continue unchanged. This, I would argue, is the position you are arguing from above. A second way of looking at it is from the POV that an almost infinite number of variables continually change social mores. In this particular case, interracial marriage become widely accepted over a relatively small space of time, because attitudes shifted. The “slippery slope catastrophe” was averted — not because certain predictions didn’t come true, but because when people got to see those predictions that did unfold they decided it was not actually catastrophic at all.

      Compare this to a different example I used with @will-truman up above. When this country finally decided that you couldn’t have a private business forbid Jews, exceptions were made — and in fact most of those exceptions they still stand today. Allowing a Catholic Church to have Christians-only places of worship, banquets halls, schools, and services did not lead to us allowing a No-Jews-Allowed pizza parlor. And because SSA proponents seem oblivious to the fact that there really is no “downward” slope and things can progress badly in any number of directions, I will add that our being very serious about not allowing No-Jews-Allowed pizza parlors has not led to us to a place where we force the New York Diocese to allow kiddushin ceremonies.

      Again, all of this is because we do not live in the static world that a SSA pretends we do. Things are ever-changing, and we reevaluate our positions on almost everything as new data makes itself known. This notion that there are only two possible extreme points on a one-dimensional graph — No Gay Marriage vs. Allowing Pedophlia, Allowing Children of Faith Healing Cults to Die vs. Deporting the Muslims — and that ultimately we must choose to stand on one of those points, is a fallacy.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        You are misunderstanding my point. You are conflating the causal story with the evaluative consequences. From the point of view of a conservative circa 1960, the mere fact that gay people can marry is by itself moral catastrophe. It is not, “if you allow the mixing of races, then one day in the future you will allow homosexuals to marry and that will cause some catastrophe”. The argument is “if you allow the mixing of races, then one day in the future you will allow gay people to marry and that itself will be bad” They may have been wrong about their evaluation of the badness of gay marriage. At least we would say so from our perspective. But that is part of the prediction too. Usually when it comes to policy, how these things work is by future thing that is now much feared becoming acceptable and therefore being implemented/allowed. If proponents of SSA assumed a static world, the argument wouldn’t even make sense. The SSA presupposes that the world can change. The worry is that it would change in a bad way. Disagreeing about whether a change is bad or not does not have any bearing on whether or not the change will happen.Report

  4. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    If you are a person who thinks that smoking pot is always morally wrong and should be illegal under any circumstance, then the argument that legalized medical marijuana may open the door to legalized recreational marijuana is a very strong argument to your ears.

    Isn’t that a real thing that actually happened? My understanding, from people I know who live there, is that the legalization of medical marijuana in California was a de facto recreational legalization due to the ease of obtaining a medical marijuana card on extremely flimsy medical justifications.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      Note, it is also a strong argument for people who are torn between allowing cancer patients some pain relief and preventing people from injuring themselves by OD-ing on drugs. If there is no way to do both, then they have to give up either the provision of pain relief or allow people to get stupidly high and hurt themselves.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      What’s more, it’s not a slippery slope. A slippery slope would be, “Medical marijuana will lead to another crack epidemic!” “Medical marijuana will make marijuana seem harmless, so people will think it should be legal for recreational use” is a causal argument, while there is no argument that is not highly speculative, if not downright paranoid, that leads from medical marijuana to a crack epidemic.Report

  5. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    What if someone truly believes in their slippery slope arguments?

    I think this happened in the SSM debates. On social media, there were a lot of satirical cartoons that said stuff like “This is
    what will happen if gay people get married. Gay people will get married.” This was clearly an attack on people who think that
    SSM is going to invite God’s Wrath or lead to a parade of horrors.

    The issue being is that the pro-SSM side believes that the anti-SSM crowd is merely homophobic and bigots and using insincere
    arguments. What sincerely (but incorrectly) does believe in an active God and that allowing SSM opens up the nation and the
    universe to God’s wrath?

    SSA calls outs are usually done by the opposition. They are a short hand of saying “Don’t be absurd” and/or calls for dishonesty What if the issue and
    problem is that two sides in an argument inhabit different moral/ethical universe but the same physical universe? SSM opponents
    inhabit a moral universe with a wrathful and angry God and many SSM supporters do not.Report

  6. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    The slippery slope arguer apparently denies the ability of a decision-maker to balance competing interests.

    For instance, a few days ago I suggested that there are circumstances in which the social good of equality must be balanced against the social good of free speech. Specifically, one has the first amendment right to use the n-word in conversation, but one’s use of the n-word is also evidence of one’s racial animus in a racial discrimination lawsuit.

    The slippery slope version of this becomes:

    Once you let people get sued for using the n-word to address subordinates in the workplace, there will be no principled barrier to later sending someone to prison because they sometimes think bad thoughts about black people. We don’t want to live in a world where people are punished for that sort of thought crime and so, unfortunately, it turns out that we simply can’t have workplace anti-harassment laws.

    Which ignores the fact that no, we can indeed have both free speech and anti-discrimination law at the same time, but we do need to find reasonable limits to how far both are permitted to extend. After all, isn’t it equally valid to argue:

    If free speech means that workplace anti-harassment laws are unconstitutional, then free speech obviously means that we can’t punish people for things that they say. And unfortunately, that means that laws criminalizing perjury and fraud have to go, too.

    Both of these slippery-slope claims make the same mistake: they presume that people faced with claims to competing and conflicting goods are either incapable of finding reasonable and good-faith ways to limit and balance the competing and conflicting goods, or that they will be unwilling to do so.

    Slippery slope arguments are quite interesting from a formation of political policy perspective because they actually are sometimes predictive of future policy initiatives. But that merely means that the legislator who has no objection to the proposal on the table, but does object to what lies within the pit of horribles found at the base of the slippery slope, should make clear when casting votes or proffering amendments that while the good thing under discussion may be had, the other bad thing is not going to be acceptable in the future. Exactly what that looks like will vary from case to case.

    …Until it is. Who knows, maybe future generations will find people today moral monsters for generally assuming that of course a man cannot marry a box turtle. For myself, I am content to leave the box turtle question to future generations. For I trust that they can balance the moral, cultural, economic, scientific, and social conditions of their day, should such an issue it ever present itself with sobriety.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      The key reason the law is the way it is, and thus, why standard company policies ban the n-word is because, from there, it’s a short downward path on a surface with a low coefficient of friction to denying African Americans promotions, equal pay, and decent working conditions overall.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      It’s all about A, B, and C.

      A lot of unreasonable policies we have today started from a reasonable place. Why should people who buy things with money made from illegal drug sales be allowed to keep the proceeds? And there are reasonable regimed in which asset forfeiture would be reasonable, but I simply don’t trust the government to do it, or the people to establish appropriate safeguards, and so except in the spirit of compromise I want the whole thing done away with.

      This isn’t a universal argument against any reasonable policy that can morph into something unreasonable. But it is cause to evaluate, closely, the ramifications of not only the policy but the justifications for the policy. That evaluation can easily lead to the conclusion that the value of the good of the proposed policies (value A) outweighs the potential (value B) future bad policy (value C).

      We can call this evaluation “slippery slope” (and colloquially we do) or not (which maybe we’re not supposed to), but it is extremely short-sighted to view only the policy on the table and trust that it won’t provide or strengthen a framework to justify something else. It may not, and looking at the most extreme of possibilities most likely won’t, but if not it’s worthwhile to explain why not (or why it’s a risk worth taking for the good of the immediate proposal).

      Which, in the case of gay marriage, I actually find quite easy.Report

      • Avatar Owen says:

        I am actually going to go out on a limb here and say that looking at the justifications for a policy is rather flawed as a method of analysis. It assumes a level of intellectual consistency that few if any people actually possess. Arguments are quite frequently developed and deployed on an ad hoc basis. Or perhaps to be more charitable, people often have more nuanced views than they initially reveal. This is the same reason why criticisms of supposed hypocrisy are generally so unpersuasive.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          I refer primarily to the stated justifications for the policy. Which are not always the real justifications, mind you, but they’re a pretty good place to start.Report

          • Avatar Morat20 says:

            Yeah. Step one of evaluating a law (either one in effect or one proposed) is seeing if the end result matches the stated justification for the law. It doesn’t have to be perfect, obviously — I mean we outlaw murder, and people still kill (it’s strange how often I see people object to a law because ‘people will still break it’ or ‘then only criminals will do it’. Duh.) — but it’s got to be ballpark.

            And of course with proposed laws there’s a lot of modelling and priors brought in. It’s easier with existing laws.

            Like civil forfeiture, we can look at the justifications and intent of the law, and it’s current application, and easily think “Wait, what?” and most people would conclude “This needs further work. It is being abused/misapplied/extended past the original justifications”. Perhaps it needs full repeal. I don’t know. But it’s pretty obvious that the original legislative intent has been far surpassed in practice.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird says:

    P -> Q
    Q -> R
    R -> S
    S -> T

    If (P -> Q) *AND* (Q -> R) *AND* (R -> S) *AND* (S -> T) are true, then P -> T is true.

    One man’s slippery slope is another man’s Modus Ponens.

    While “slippery slope” is a handy way to say “hey, one of your propositions in there is not, in fact, true”, I tend to prefer the argument that says “it is not the case that (R -> S) therefore (P -> T) is false” to the argument that says “SLIPPERY SLOPE! THEREFORE WE DON’T HAVE TO EVEN THINK ABOUT T!!!!”

    I mean, just yelling “slippery slope” is an argument from fallacy, after all.Report

    • Avatar Owen says:

      If you lay out the intermediate causal steps, you are no longer making a slippery slope argument. The whole problem with SSAs is that they obfuscate the intermediate steps, usually because one or more of them is obviously flawed. Calling someone out for making an SSA is effectively asking them to show their work.Report

  8. The Cather In the Rye

    I guess Willa got around more than I thought.Report

  9. The thing is that once you accept plausible slippery slope arguments, pretty soon you’re believing stuff that’s complete hogwash.Report

  10. I hadn’t thought of looking at SSA’s like this before, Tod. I’ve been more focused on the “well, what if it can actually happen!” part of the argument. Your point about SSA’s misdirecting attention from the real argument at hand (reason #1, with a whiff of reason #2), is something I don’t think I’ve thought of. It’s a good point.Report

  11. Avatar Jon Rowe says:

    I didn’t get through all of the comments, so forgive me if someone already made this point, but isn’t the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy the ultimate refutation of the slippery slope argument?Report

    • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

      Only if you don’t believe in causality at all.Report

      • Avatar Jon Rowe says:

        So I put my legal hat on. The theory of causation in negligence. Causation breaks down into two sub-elements: 1. “Cause in fact,” just means links in chain, of which there are potentially countless numbers of such. And 2. “Proximate cause,” in other words the “real” cause where we park the blame.

        For example, both same sex marriage and interracial marriage are recognized federally in America BECAUSE we have a 14th Amendment. Therefore the 14th Amendment is a “cause in fact” (a link in the chain) of which there are many.

        You prove #1 first, #2 second. Indeed you have to be #1 before you can be #2.

        The “proximate cause” is where we park the blame.Report

        • I wonder, did anyone at the time argue against the 14th by saying it would lead to black men marrying white women, and did its proponents pooh-pooh that as alarmist nonsense?Report

          • Avatar Jon Rowe says:

            More or less, yes. The framers of the 14th said that the amendment would not interfere with the constitutional legality of anti-miscegenation laws as whites and blacks were EQUALLY forbidden from marrying one another.Report

          • Avatar Kolohe says:


            According to the above, a few anti-miscenagation laws were struck down in the 1860s and 1870s based on the 14th amendment, then a new spin was put on it towards the end of the 19th century that lasted until Loving v Virginia.Report

            • Avatar Jon Rowe says:

              Interesting. What I was thinking of was the Illinois Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull — the drafter and manager of the 14th Amendment — who stated: “If the negro is denied the right to marry a white person, [and] the white person is equally denied the right to marry the negro[,] I see no discrimination against either.”

              I wrote about that here.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I recall that same rationale being floated a bit during the SSM debates: since the law prohibiting it merely prevented same sexed people from marrying irrespective of gender or sexual orientation it applied to everyone equally.Report

        • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

          Was replying to the “ultimate refutation” part, not the legal/practical reasoning part. The Slippery Slope argument/fallacy is a species of imperfect or incomplete reasoning not or, some might say, ever to be taken as adequate reasoning. Ditto for post hoc ergo propter hoc, but, somewhat similarly, to deny that some hocs were very significantly propter the hocs they were post would be to deny the existence or possibility of practical reasoning at all.Report

  12. Avatar Will Truman says:

    By far the most interesting aspect of this thread, to me, is the different definitions. I mean, I knew that SSF had a precise definition that is narrower than colloquial usage of the term. But arguments being dismissed as not being SSF seem to be referred to as “slippery slope” a lot. Not just by people seeking to dismiss the argument, but by advocates. (Though mostly by critics, to be sure).

    I can go with either definition, really, and that what I am defending in my post should not be referred to as “slippery slope.” But I arrived at using the term (to describe my own arguments at time) for a reason. Told it is enough long enough, I accept the term (if not the fallacy) applies and move on. But I can link here going forward and say, I guess, that A, B, and C (mostly B) are an attempt to demonstrate the logical chain.

    The lingering question I have, then is how we determine whether the causal chain has been logically demonstrated. It does sort of seem to me as “I don’t think what you fear is going to happen is going to actually happen” will result in the argument being dismissed as SSF (as it has been in the past) when it’s mostly just a disagreement about a policy’s potential ramifications. (The latter of which seems a legitimate source for disagreement on the policy, but not in whether one argument or the other is fallacious.)Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      Oddly i here people saying something is “slippery slope” as if just stating that is a reason not to do X. They think the phrase is a good argument and name checking it is a good move. In any case most SS arguments are the worst projections of people fears against something.Report

  13. Avatar QBERT says:

    You missed an argument: Not all slopes are slippery; some are very sticky indeed, or have prominent stopping points.Report