Tag Archives: Slippery Slope

Moral feelings

I posted something the other day about Pastor Rick Warren's comparison of homosexual acts to violent assault.  Seems like not really an apt comparison.  Now comes Antonin Scalia with an even better, I mean, worse, argument (from the Huffington Post):

"I don't think it's necessary, but I think it's effective," Scalia said, adding that legislative bodies can ban what they believe to be immoral.

Scalia has been giving speeches around the country to promote his new book, "Reading Law," and his lecture at Princeton comes just days after the court agreed to take on two cases that challenge the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Some in the audience who had come to hear Scalia speak about his book applauded but more of those who attended the lecture clapped at freshman Duncan Hosie's question.

"It's a form of argument that I thought you would have known, which is called the `reduction to the absurd,'" Scalia told Hosie of San Francisco during the question-and-answer period. "If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?"

Scalia said he is not equating sodomy with murder but drawing a parallel between the bans on both.

Then he deadpanned: "I'm surprised you aren't persuaded."

I'm perplexed by the first bolded claim, as Legislative bodies in the US are limited by the Constitution as to what they can ban–they can't ban acts of religion can't they?  Anyway, I don't have the full quote or context so whatever.

The other claim, the reduction to the absurd, is rather odd.  I imagine no one doubts the possibility of having "moral feelings" against homosexuality.  The question, of course, is whether such feelings are (a) morally or rationally justified and (b) legally enforceable.  I suppose the latter question is the one that ought to concern Scalia.  So there is an equivocation in Scalia's claim over "cannot."  You can have all the feelings you want against anything.  Some of those might be morally justified, some might be legally enforceable.  No law, however, can take away your ability to disapprove of things.

As if this were not bad enough for a big mind such as Scalia's, this equivocation is then used as a lever to push the little cart down the slippery slope: if we cannot ban homosexuality, then we cannot ban murder!  That's not reduction to the absurd, it's just absurd. 

It is invalid and holds no weight

So, I was derping around on the internets and I ran into an article with the following portentous title: "A Rational Basis for Marriage between One Man and One Woman."  Curious, I read on.  Here's how it begins:

It is imperative for Catholics to develop rational arguments to defend the institution of marriage in the public square. We live in a pluralistic society and, therefore, what we accept as revelation is not necessarily accepted by others. However, an argument grounded in right reason—without explicit recourse to revelation—is in principle comprehensible to all persons of good will.

I'm all in agreement.  It continues:

As we consider the current debate over marriage, it would be a mistake to underestimate the pedagogical function of the law and how a fundamental change in marriage law will result in a fundamental change in our understanding of the human person. What is at stake in the push to redefine marriage to include same-sex partners is not only the radical redefinition of marriage—but, also and necessarily, the radical redefinition of the human person and the entire range of relationships that constitute our basic experience as persons: male and female; husband and wife; mother and father; son and daughter; brother and sister.

Well, that's a bad sign–there's going to be a slippery slope!  But that's not what interests me about this piece.  It's the following two paragraphs (directly from above):

Marriage between one man and one woman is recognized as a public institution, with its attendant benefits and responsibilities, precisely because it serves the common good. Marriage offers the State its most necessary common good: bringing children into the world and raising them in a family that includes the love of their mother and father. The State needs people (citizens) in order to flourish: no people = no State. Under the principle of subsidiarity, the common good is better served when mothers and fathers raise their children, not the State.

Extending marriage to same-sex partners will redefine marriage in such a way that marriage will no longer be understood to have a direct relationship to the procreation and education of children. Bringing children into the world and raising them will be seen as extrinsic rather than intrinsic to marriage.[1] Openness to procreation will no longer belong to the very substance and definition of marriage. It will be reduced merely to an option for those couples who happen to want children.

If you're playing along at home, the first paragraph seems to suggest that it's either Trad Marriage (by the principle of WTF) or the STATE RAISES YOUR BABIES.  It also seems to allege that there will be no babies without marriage.  But forget about that.  The second of the two rests on a couple of key instances of the passive voice: will be understood and will be seen.  Well, I wonder, by whom?  Let's rewrite the passage in the active voice:

Extending marriage to same-sex partners will redefine marriage in such a way that [rewrite: some people, catholics, etc. will no longer understand] marriage to have a direct relationship to the procreation and education of children. [rewrite: These people will see ] that Bringing children into the world and raising them [is] extrinsic rather than intrinsic to marriage.[1] Openness to procreation will no longer belong to the very substance and definition of marriage. It will be reduced merely to an option for those couples who happen to want children.

The passive voice just covers up all of the questions being begged.  Marriage, in its public legal sense, has many definitions.  In some states, this already includes same-sex marriages.  As a public institution, therefore, it has "no substance and definition" in some kind of robust metaphysical sense, as the use of the passive suggests.  People see marriage in all sorts of ways, and they define it as a public institution in different ways.  Some people may "understand it to be x" but that doesn't mean that they understand it correctly.  Nor for that matter does it mean that they aren't fully entitled to live it that way.

If you want to make openness to procreation a part of your marriage, then get married in a Catholic Church.  If you don't care, as some already don't, then don't.  Catholics do not own the definition of marriage as a secular and public institution.  If you're going to make an appeal to reason, right or otherwise, you cannot presume without argument that your view is the starting point.       



My apologies to those who want something more challenging, but here's a classic slippery slope from the Vatican:

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is digging in after gay marriage initiatives scored big wins this week in the U.S. and Europe, vowing to never stop insisting that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

In a front-page article in Saturday's Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, the Holy See sought to frame itself as the lone voice of courage in opposing initiatives to give same-sex couples legal recognition. In a separate Vatican Radio editorial, the pope's spokesman asked sarcastically why gay marriage proponents don't now push for legal recognition for polygamous couples as well.

I apologize for the lack of a direct quote and link, but the Osservatore Romano site does not have the article and when you search for the term "gay" nothing appears.  Curious.  Anyway, perhaps the Pope's spokesperson will remember that the slope leading to polygamy and polyandry hasn't already been traversed in the opposite direction.  Those things already exist, in other words, and it was straight marriage that led to them.

Gay marriage, being the opposite of straight marriage, will lead therefore ipso fatso apodictically to the opposite of the slope leading to polyandry and polygamy: monandry or monogamy.  That's the way logic works.

Smack Down!

The Huffington Post, despite much promise, is a huge disappointment.  One reason is that the editors characterize any kind of discussion as a "battle" and any kind of response to  criticism as a "smack down" or "slap" or somesuchother expression. 

Now some have argued, wrongly I think (irony alert), that Philosophy is to blame for this adversarial culture of argument.  This is what critical thinking and logic courses teach, they allege, so it's no wonder we have this language of argument filled with metaphors of war and sports.  Scott Aikin has a discussion of that topic here

But I don't think that's really the case for Philosophy.  Speaking somewhat anecdotally, philosophers deploy critical analysis (including "the fallacy technique") to uncover the silliness of HuffPo style "debates."  Here's a good example from this morning's HuffPo.  It's an article which the front page calls "Barney Frank Smacks Down George Will."  The actual article, however, is actually appropriately titled "Barney Frank, George Will debate Pot Legalization".  This includes a video here.

I think this is actually a fun exchange.  Frank argues that self-regarding behavior of adults is their own business, Will plays the conservative end of the conservative side (not the libertarian end), arguing that the jury is still out on these things, and that "liberalism" is averse to facts.  Even if Frank had successfully dismantled the dishonest structure of Will's pseudo libertarianism, I wouldn't call this exchange a "smack down."  Come to think of it, I'm not even sure what a "smack down" is. 

Discrimination by any other name

Roger Scruton is a serious philosopher.  That's why I was disappointed to read his American Spectator article defending an English couple's right to refuse to allow a gay couple to share a room at their hotel (see the Guardian report).  It's not that I was disappointed that Scruton would defend these folks (I expected that), but that I expected a good argument.  Instead, I got the old canards. 

Maybe that [laws prohibiting discrimination] is the only way to proceed, but it involves curtailing freedom in ways that can easily be resented.

Ah, prohibiting discrimination curtails the freedom of discriminators to discriminate.  That is a very important freedom, indeed.  And we must be very careful not to cause people the harm of feeling resentment.  That's a much worse harm than not being treated as an equal.

We discriminate between people on grounds of their height, their age, their strength, their virtue, their looks.

Oh, the false analogy!  The familiar, yet utterly irrelevant, old saw of the discrimination apologists.  Yes, we discriminate on the basis of characteristics relevant to a job, opportunity, and so on.  Isn't the burden of proof always on those who do the discriminating to explain why some characteristic is relevant?  If there is a relevant connection between the characteristic and the opportunity, we don't call the decision 'discriminating,' but 'distinguishing.'  Is there a relevant bit of distinguishing to be done with homosexuality?

The purpose of including sexual orientation in the open-ended "non-discrimination" clauses of modern legal systems is to overcome "prejudice," to normalize homosexuality…. It is, however, much more of a prejudice to think that matters of sexual conduct can, in this way, be simply placed beyond moral judgment — as though they were not, for ordinary people, the very essence of the moral life.

Ad populum, too. Everyone thinks it is unnatural and immoral, so that's evidence it is.  But why think that these views are right? 

It is one part of a considered religious morality that has stood the test of time.

But why does the fact that it is an old view make it a good one, yet?  Surely at some point in time over the course of the long testings of time someone must have said that perhaps the view needs to be worked out in some detail.  After all that time, all they have to say for the view is that it is old and keeps getting older… standing the test of time. Oh, but the times are changing. 

THIS, IT SEEMS TO ME, shows what is really at stake in these disputes. They are not about human rights, or about the perennial conflict between liberty and equality. "Non-discrimination" clauses are ways of smuggling in vast moral changes without real discussion . . . . Sex, sexual orientation, and maybe soon sexual practices — so that the hotel keeper will no longer be able to discriminate against the person who happens to live as a prostitute.

And the slippery slope to running a flophouse for prostitution for a finale!  Well, at least he didn't have the slippery slope to bestiality.  And after having repeated the same old weak arguments for discrimination, has Scruton made any headway in helping this real discussion he wants to have?  I'm sad to say I don't think so.  Which, again, is too bad.  Because he's the best thinker that conservatives have.  That may be evidence as to just how bad-off the conservative case against gay rights is.

Judgement at Nuremberg

Kathleen Parker cluelessly asks:

When did we start punishing lawyers for producing opinions with which we disagree? And where does that road lead?

The answer: Nuremberg

And that's not the dumbest part of her argument.  This inexplicably moronic assertion (seen by now all over the place, e.g., here) shows up as well:

Moreover, the same technique is used to train our own military personnel, who do not suffer severe physical pain or prolonged mental harm. 

The logic of this claim is completely baffling.  If we use the technique known as waterboarding in order to prepare our military personnel for the kinds of torture that the enemy might use against them, then on that account it's not torture if we use it against the enemy.  But if it's not torture, then we are either tormenting our soldiers for no good reason or we are giving the enemy a pass in virtue of our using it as training.  

Diminished mental capacity

Kathleen Parker concern trolls on behalf of homophobic Christian ministers:

When whites lynched blacks with the tacit approval of the state, the entire African American community was terrorized. No one can pretend otherwise. It is this immeasurable horror that hate-crimes laws attempt to address by adding another layer of punishment to the primary crime.

What fair-minded person could object? On the other hand, how do we read the minds of our worst actors? Is it possible to say conclusively that these killers were motivated by hate to the exclusion of other potentially confounding factors?

These are legitimate questions that deserve rational debate without the dueling rants of hyperbole and outrage. Ultimately, that debate leads to free-speech issues — especially religious speech — and the real crux of the opposition.

Some conservative groups worry that hate-crimes laws might lead to restrictions on churches or other religious organizations' freedom to quote Scripture that might be deemed hateful toward gays. Might a passionate preacher's invocation of, say, Leviticus 20:13, which condemns homosexual behavior, be interpreted as conspiracy to commit a hate crime?

In fact, the legislation applies when a physical assault or attempted murder takes place. And, so far, the First Amendment still protects the rights of even the Rev. Fred Phelps to take his "God Hates Fags" show on the road.

But in a country where eating Twinkies can be a defense for murder — and a Miss USA contestant can be publicly denounced as a "dumb bitch" for saying that marriage should be between a man and a woman — stranger things are sure to happen.

As an operating principle, meanwhile, it seems wiser to hear and see the haters rather than criminalize their thoughts and banish them to the underground where their demons can fester and where no law can breach their purpose

There's a neat collection of straightforward fallacies here.  In the first place, there is the oft-repeated objection that bias crimes involve an impossible form of "mind reading."  That is just dumb.  "Intentional murder" involves mind reading.  

Second, that the existence of hate crimes laws will ultimately (that's the word that indicates the bottom of the slippery slope–here a fallacious one) inhibit religious speech is just crazy.  Hate crimes laws, as the very name makes clear, involve crimes.  Click here for the FBI page on hate crimes.

That–the alleged slope–completes the red herring–the bait and switch.  For the initial point of the piece regarded including crimes against homosexuals (and others) in hate crimes laws.  Including them seems perfectly reasonable.  It has nothing to do, as Parker even seems to admit without realizing it, with people's "thoughts" (taken by themselves).  Non-existent restrictions on free speech, in other words, are not the issue at all.  On account of that obvious fact, we don't need to worry about "criminalizing" anyone's thoughts.  

Finally, it's ludicrous (and just plain baffling) to group the (not actually real) "Twinkie defense" (supposedly used to justify the murder of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in San Francisco) and the completely reasonable negative public reaction to a beauty contest's lame and ignorant defense of opposite marriage.  She made a contentious point about what rights certain people should have–many have objected to her reasoning.  She's a public figure and ought to expect that.  

One more thing, however, about the murderer of Harvey Milk.  The jury, reading the defendents mind, found him unable to have engaged in premeditated murder on account of diminished mental capacity. 

Compound error

I read these things and shake my head:

Last week’s column about Denis Rancourt, a University of Ottawa professor who is facing dismissal for awarding A-plus grades to his students on the first day of class and for turning the physics course he had been assigned into a course on political activism, drew mostly negative comments.

The criticism most often voiced was that by holding Rancourt up as an example of the excesses indulged in by those who invoke academic freedom, I had committed the fallacy of generalizing from a single outlier case to the behavior of an entire class “Is the Rancourt case one of a thousand such findings this year, or it the most outlandish in 10 years?” (Jack, No. 88).

That's Stanley Fish, the New York Times' interpreter of the academic world.  Sounds like he has been accused of a hasty generalization in the form of "nutpicking."  I'm not particularly interested in the merits of the charge–Fish seems even to concede it.  One minor observation.  I'm sure we are all guilty at one point or another for reasoning that badly.  The difference is that Fish gets to air out his errors in the New York Times.  Anyway, he makes things worse as he defends himself.  He writes (following directly):

It may be outlandish because it is so theatrical, but one could argue, as one reader seemed to, that Rancourt carries out to its logical extreme a form of behavior many display in less dramatic ways. “How about a look at the class of professors who … duck their responsibilities ranging from the simple courtesies (arrival on time, prepared for meetings … ) to the essentials (“lack of rigor in teaching and standards … )” (h.c.. ecco, No. 142). What links Rancourt and these milder versions of academic acting-out is a conviction that academic freedom confers on professors the right to order (or disorder) the workplace in any way they see fit, irrespective of the requirements of the university that employs them.

Eegads!  "Carrying the behavior to its logical extreme" is the characteristic marker of the slippery slope.  And its supported by an alleged fallacy of accident: certain very jerky professors are going to interpret academic freedom very broadly, and, since they will allege this, there must be a logical connection between academic freedom and being a complete nitwit.  Well there isn't.  Just because the connection is alleged by some–how many, not many I would guess–does not mean the connection obtains.  What Fish has done, in other words, is compound the error of one fallacy (the hasty generalization nutpicking variety) with three more:the slippery slope, the fallacy of accident, and the implied hasty generalization again!