The Slippery Slope of the Slippery Slope
Earlier this week at Hit Coffee, Will came to the defense of the Slippery Slope argument:
The thing is, though, while they have a spotty track record, slippery slope arguments are not inherently wrong. Nor are they “right” in the sense that a broken clock is right twice a day. Sometimes they are not only right, but applicable to the decision-making process. It depends on the particulars of the situation and the value judgments of the people discussing it.
If by chance you have yet to read the the essay, you should pop over there and rectify this. It’s a damn good read. (Bonus: There are mutants!) It’s as good a defense of the Slippery Slope argument (SSA) as I have read. Seriously, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
On the other hand, however, there is also this: Will is wrong. SSAs are just terrible, and people should endeavor to avoid using them.
I decided to write about the topic here, because SSAs are ubiquitous amongst everyone, regardless of political or cultural stripes. They are also a blight — both on clear thinking and honest discourse. To be clear, this is not because any two events connected by a SSA are necessarily unconnected. As Will correctly points out, outcomes predicted by SSAs can indeed be realized. Legal interracial marriage was eventually followed by legal same-sex marriage, just as horrified moralists predicted at the time. Allowing bookstores and libraries to carry copies of Fanny Hill, Ulysses, and The Cather In the Rye really was but a step toward being able to watch people boinking on the Internet. And at least at the moment, it appears that the ballot box victories that legalized medical marijuana are quickly being followed by a successful movement to legally sell pot for recreational purposes. But just because something isn’t automatically a fallacy doesn’t mean that it’s good, or productive, or even effective. And in fact, SSAs are almost never any of those things.
There are several reasons for this, which I will attempt to detail below. But first, allow me a quick note on the argument that a SSA is merely the identification of potential consequences. This observation is true, but also woefully incomplete. When we discuss SSAs, we are not talking about the immediate consequences of our actions/inactions, but rather a long string of cascading events that lead to a particular prophesied outcome. This outcome is usually assumed to be catastrophic. And so these warnings of dire consequences are not examples of true SSAs:
If we cut taxes by 5% today, there will be a serious budget shortfall.
If we raise taxes by 5% today, economic growth will be stifled.
But these are:
If we cut taxes by 5% today, we will be going down a path that leads to a world where there are no public libraries.
If we raise taxes by 5% today, we will be going down a path that will lead to America becoming a socialist dictatorship.
That being said, let’s take a look at the reasons why SSAs are so terrible.
Reason #1: SSAs are largely dishonest and lazy attempts to “magic” away strong arguments against one’s position.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that you are an opponent of same-sex marriage circa 2010. And for the sake of same said argument, let us also say that the morality of allowing/forbidding same-sex marriage is indeterminate and unknowable, and that the entire topic is but a public policy discussion along the lines of using phonics vs. whole language in public schools.
From the viewpoint of someone in 2010, the task of stemming the changing tide is immense and growing more difficult with each passing month. Arguments that hinge on others needing to adhere to your own personal religious beliefs — entirely ironclad but a generation ago — are becoming less and less popular with voters. And the mainstreaming of the gay lifestyle makes it more and more difficult to paint a picture of gays and lesbians as radically different Others. There are other, stronger potential arguments, of course, such as the possible negative effect on children, lowered birth rates as an effect of a culture that does not view marriage primarily as a vehicle for siring children, the possibility that such marriages might actually be psychologically damaging to actual gay men and/or lesbians, etc. All of these stronger potential arguments, however, are both difficult to construct and necessarily time consuming. Each requires either finding serious flaws in the currently accepted social-science data on gay and lesbian couples, or the creation of entirely new and accurate data that supports your point of view. And though all of that might seem like drudgery, it has a kind of potential sweat equity attached to it: If the data bends your way, you have the making of a devastating and game-changing argument.
Or, alternatively, you might just insist that if two men are allowed to marry then someday we will live in a world where people marry turtles.
The problem with the SSA here — from the perceptive of same-sex marriage opponents — isn’t that it’s silly. It’s that it attempts to pretend that strong arguments for same-sex marriage don’t exist by creating an entirely separate issue, one where anti-SSM can stand on firmer ground. (Because, really, who other than Elaine Chao wants to marry a turtle?) 1 Intentional or not, it’s a slight-of-hand trick that asks to be let off the hook from having to deal with the potentially strong arguments laid against one’s side.
And make no mistake, the side being damaged by the turtle-marriage SSA in this debate isn’t actually SSM advocates. It’s the SSM opponents. This is because of Reason #2:
Reason # 2: SSAs aren’t really tools for convincing people who disagree with you that you’re correct; they’re simply a way to preach to your own choir — while potentially shrinking it.
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. It’s also a useless one, because you don’t need to be convinced that medical marijuana should be verboten. Yes, you might find this line of reasoning winning — but so what? It’s like going to a raffle and winning the old couch that’s sitting in your den that you’ve owned for the past ten years. You’ve gained nothing.
For everyone else, though, SSAs comes off as terribly weak. This is because non-Kool-Aid drinkers readily see that medical marijuana and recreational marijuana are separate issues. People can easily hold both positions in separate hands and view each on its own merits (or lack thereof). 2
This creates a problem for the anti-pot crowd, because leading with a weak argument is a pretty sure way to lose the interest (and potential agreement) of those sitting the fence. Additionally, weak arguments tend to strengthen the belief of those that disagree with you that they are correct and you are an idiot. Worst of all, weak arguments tend to break down the “stickiness” of stronger arguments for those who are currently on your side of the fence, but whose passion and/or sense of infallibility on the issue is not as strong as yours.
A SSA, in other words, is a vehicle that makes you feel clever even as you undermine your own position.
Reason #3: SSAs assume a wholly static world where one does not exist.
At its most basic essence, the underlying reasoning and appeal for all SSAs comes down to this:
If anything changes, bad things might occur.
Take Bill O’Reilly’s SSA from above as an example. When people make this particular SSA, they do not actually believe man-on-turtle love to a viable threat that we must vigilantly guard against. Instead, it’s really just a plea to have a static universe. The “men will marry turtles” argument hinges directly and purposefully on the “marriage has been unchanged for thousands of years” argument. It presents a hidden dichotomy; worse, it presents a false one. Marriage has been ever-changing and evolving for its entire existence; it will continue to do so, regardless of our efforts. The whispered promise embedded in the SSA — if we defeat SSM, all marriages going forward will be just like ours and our parents’ — is a lie that only works (when it does work) because the listener wants so very much to believe in it. At its heart of hearts, a SSA asks us to believe the lie that change is a thing that happens to other people. This makes it both deeply seductive and deeply flawed.
Still, the best reason that SSAs are a blight is the final reason.
Reason #4: SSAs are entirely indiscriminate.
What can you say about a type of argument that’s so broad that you can make it about any position for anything with equal gravity?
If you allow two men to marry, then someday you’ll let a man marry a turtle. But if you forbid two men to marry because of “tradition,” than someday you’ll go back to making interracial marriage illegal and make wives the property of husbands because of “tradition.”
Legalize marijuana today, and eventually you’ll legalize crack cocaine and heroin. But refuse to do so, and eventually you’ll use the exact same reasons to criminalize alcohol and cough medicine.
Allow a .2%-of-income school levy to be passed today, and tomorrow they’ll ask for all of your income. But oppose it, and tomorrow they’ll cut so many taxes that the police, fire department, and all social services will be shut down forever.
There is literally no position, no matter how innocuous or righteous, that a SSA can’t “prove” will lead to the end of civilization as we know it. That right there should give you some pause about its inherent worth as a tool of discourse.
After all, there’s a word for an argument that requires no effort, little reasoning, has little if any expectation of being persuasive, and is equally good for all positions.
That word is “useless.”
[Image: Very steep hill traffic sign, via Wiki Commons.]