Tag Archives: bumpy staircase

At some point… we’ll all love slippery slope arguments


Robert Astorino was on CNN with Don Lemon to talk about whether the Trump tweet calling Omarosa a ‘dog’ was racist.  Here is an edited version of the exchange:

Lemon: What do you think, Rob.  Was it a racist attack? Do you think he (Trump) should refrain from doing this?

Astorino: I don’t think it was a racist attack.  I think he’s (Trump) an equal opportunity offender. In that he goes after….

…. I had no idea that the word ‘dog’ – I knew it was pejorative – I had no idea that it was a racist term. And I don’t think that most people took it as one.

… I actually looked it up in the dictionary, and nowhere does it say that it’s a slang or racial word….

Lemon: Certain words used against certain people have a different context than if it’s used on a person of the larger culture…. Shouldn’t you know the nuances of this?

Robert Astorino: No. The quick answer is that at some point, we are going to get to the word ‘the,’ and ‘the’ is going to be racist. Because, as I just said is it (calling a woman a ‘dog’) pejorative? Yes. Because he (Trump) meant it as that – to punch back at her, figuratively.  Because he was upset – he knew her and she let him down.

The trouble with Astorino’s line of argument is that there are, as we’ve called them in the past, bumpy staircases (instead of slippery slopes) between a white man calling a black woman a ‘dog’ being racist and usage of articles (definite or indefinite, perhaps) being racist.  Lemon’s point about context is part of it, and the long history of animal vocabulary being overused with people of color is the main factor.    So what prevents the slipperiness of this slope is that there isn’t a long history of usage of ‘the’ as a term of abuse, but there have been ones with animal comparisons with people of color.

But notice a further thing with this particular slippery slope argument – it represents the opposition as having a very badly formulated view of the matter.  That the term ‘dog’ doesn’t have racist connotations is right from the dictionary — what a way to portray your opposition, that they don’t know the meaning of words.  The importance here is that with this slope argument Astorino represents the concerns about Trump’s racist overtones as just not knowing what words mean.  Notice, by the way, that the word ‘monkey‘ doesn’t have its racist usage noted in the dictionary, either.



Slippery slopes to vagueness

The basic form of the slippery slope argument is that you concede that some policy x (lowercase) is prima facie acceptable, but that it sets a precedent for progressively stronger versions of that policy.  Ultimately, the strongest version of the policy, call it X (uppercase), at the extreme, will seem acceptable.  But X is clearly not.  The reasoning then goes that to stem the tide of precedent to X, we must not take that first step to accept x.  For a slippery slope argument to be acceptable, the slope must be genuinely slippery.  That is, there must be a relevant relation between x and X (namely, that x is not just a  preconditon for X, but that it must make X more acceptable), there must be no places where other considerations prevent the intermediary moves, and so on.  In cases where those desiderata fail, the slope isn’t slippery.  It’s more a bumpy staircase.

Some slippery slope arguments take the form of sorites (or vagueness) lines of reasoning.  And sorite reasoning is good only when there is a restricted range of considerations.  When there are other variables, vagueness arguments stink.

Here’s Ron Ross, over at the American Spectator, on President Obama’s recent proposal to raise the minimum wage.

When I taught economics, when possible I liked to use the “Socratic method,” which is essentially teaching by asking questions. The Socratic method helps the student deduce the answer by using what he already knows.

Most people, especially college freshmen and sophomores, feel that minimum wage laws are beneficial. When discussing the topic I would ask, “If a minimum wage of $8 is better than one of $5, why skimp? Why not make the minimum wage $10, or $20, or $30?” Passing minimum wage laws is relatively easy. If eliminating poverty is that easy, why not go all the way? Why be so miserly? It’s not your money you’re spending. Go big or go home!

He takes it that this is a full-on reductio of minimum wage proposals.  Ross’s argument is classic sorite version of slippery slope.  Here’s how I’d reformulate it:

P1. (Fact of case evaluation): $5 an hour isn’t enough.

P2. (Principle of tolerance): If a wage isn’t enough, then if we add 1 cent an hour to the wage, the new wage still isn’t enough.

Once we accept P2, the pile quickly accumulates.  Iterate modus ponens 500 times, 5,000 times on the inputs and products of P1 and P2, and you end up with Ross’s conclusion. (On the assumption that P1 and P2 are true, all those MP iterations will be sound.)  Go big or go home.

As I take it, Ross’s conclusion is that we should, to prevent the pile, reject P1.  But I think liberals, to prevent the pile, reject P2.  That’s what the concept of living wage is supposed to be — that there is an economically determinable line one passes where the one cent an hour makes a difference between having enough to pay all the bills (and perhaps save a small amount) and not.   And that’s why they want to raise the minimum wage.  Running a vagueness argument misses the point.  Not surprised that Ross ran it on his college undergrads.  They must not have taken a good logic class yet.