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Prior Knowledge

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Arguments on a downhill slide

In debates on any social issue, it is not long before a slippery-slope argument is made. Such arguments take the following form: even though X in itself is not wrong, if X is allowed to occur then Y will also occur and Y is wrong.

Take the euthanasia debate. Some argue that while the terminally ill ideally should have the right to end their own lives, if society allowed this there is the danger that some people would be forced into ending their lives against their will. And that would only be the first step down a slippery slope. People might be killed without even being asked, ‘unproductive’ members of society could be despatched, and who knows what other horrors could be upon us.

Slippery slope arguments are difficult to respond to for two reasons. First they appeal to consequences that are undeniably bad. No one would doubt that a society in which the frail and elderly are killed against their will would be a terrible society. Second they emphasise that no one can say for certain that those bad consequences would not occur. If euthanasia were legalised we don’t know for sure what would happen and if there is some chance of the dire predictions coming true that seems a compelling case against it. Campaigners for euthanasia emphasise that it would be subjected to careful regulation, but how can we be certain that this regulation would succeed? And even if we were, those who make the slippery slope argument respond that euthanasia would bring about a change is people’s beliefs such that the sanctity of life would be undermined, which no amount of regulation could prevent.

Despite these strengths, slippery slope arguments ought to be avoided. It is not enough to point out the mere possibility of something bad happening. That would rule out every conceivable change to society. It has to be shown that the bad things are likely to happen. And for this evidence must be given. Those who make slippery slope arguments are seldom forthcoming with evidence and when they are they usually select only the evidence that supports their case, conveniently ignoring the rest.

Philosopher Richard Arneson has pointed out how, in response to some proposed change to society, uncertainty about the future leads to highly speculative harms being over-exaggerated. British politicians in the Victorian ages, for example, argued that allowing divorced mothers access to their own children would bring about the downfall of the family. To allow unfounded speculative harms to outweigh the real benefits that would be done by say allowing the terminally ill to end their own lives is absurd.

Slippery slope arguments should be resisted by pointing out the clear differences in the steps on the slope. In euthanasia, there is a clear difference between the terminally ill freely choosing to end their live and people being killed against their will. In the absence of any evidence of slipperiness from one step to the next, we can be as sure as it is possible to be that society will not slide down the slope.

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  • Also, extreme positions may be prone to radical undermining, or 'avalanche', all the way down the slope. In this sense fears of a slippery slope might be self-defeating. We might call this the "Precarious Pinnacle" principle.

    10/13/2005 05:06:00 PM  

  • Thanks for the link, Richard.

    I agree that we should be wary of slippery slope arguments, but I think that Simon is going too far in saying that "slippery slope arguments ought to be avoided." I'd rather say that slippery slope arguments are often poorly defended, and that we need to come up with reliable ways to distinguish the good ones from the bad ones. Slippery slope arguments are based on an empirical claim, after all, and there are plenty of historical cases where these empirical claims proved correct. See here, for instance, on how the "Right to Privacy" that made laws against contraception Unconstitutional in the US became a "Right to Privacy" that made laws against abortion Unconstitutional in the US. While Griswold was being argued, Justice Byron White and others argued that this slope would not be slipped: "I take it abortion involves killing a life in being, doesn't it? Isn't that a rather different problem from contraception?" As we see here, just because it is possible to draw a clear distinction between two cases, that does not mean that we won't slip past that distinction. The important thing, I think, is to look at similar previous examples, potential mechanisms [pdf] of slippage, social scientific theories, and other reliable indicators of whether the slope will actually be slipped. Treat it as the empirical question that it is.

    Although slippery slope arguments involve an indirect and rather speculative kind of empirical claim, that kind of broad, long-term thinking is not always such a bad thing. Consequentialism that is too narrow and direct takes for granted much of what is valuable in our society. Indirect consequentialist arguments like slippery slope arguments provide a crucial bridge between the intuitive and critical levels of morality.

    There is another nasty problem with slippery slope arguments that X will lead to Y: sometimes Y is not really a bad thing, it just seems that way from the narrow point of view of the present. The "Right to Privacy" example that I gave could be one of these cases, as, despite Justice Byron White's dissenting vote in Roe v. Wade, plenty of people think that it was right to recognize a right to early term abortions. For a more unambiguous example, consider the slippery slope concerns of people (19th century white American males) who said that, if we abolish slavery, pretty soon blacks will be treated as equals and before you know it they'll be marrying our (i.e. white) women. We can now see how far off their moral claims were, but their empirical claims were spot on. If legalized miscegenation helps sweep in an era of legal gay marriage, we can say the same thing.

    It's not easy for people to consider the possibility that their widely shared and deeply felt moral convictions may be wrong. Since the counterargument from moral progress is so hard to make, maybe it's often a good thing that people are inclined to dismiss even the empirically insightful slippery slope arguments. Or maybe we can pick out cases where we should have faith in future people and say that we will probably only slip across that dangerous-seeming line if those who come after us determine that crossing it is not so bad.

    10/14/2005 04:34:00 PM  

  • Yes there is nothing wrong with the slipery slope argument as long as one also consideres the "Precarious Pinnacle" and every other option equally and defends ones point of view properly. the slipery slope argument is rather like the arguments for fearing the bird flu presented on tv the other day.
    Basically people like to scared and then told somthign they cna to to remove that fear. People in a sense seek out some sort of disaster that might occur and then some reason it might occur to fill a psychological need.

    10/14/2005 08:11:00 PM  

  • In response to Blar, Vanya at Auckland once suggested to me that we should always think about slippery slope arguments from both sides, so for example in the euthanasia debate, imagine a society where euthanasia is permitted, and they are thinking of introducing hospice style care as an alternative to euthanasia, imagine how the slippery slope argument would go in this case...

    10/14/2005 09:47:00 PM  

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