Tag Archives: Slippery Slope

On Originalism and Omelets

Q: How many eggs do French people like to have for breakfast?

A: One is an oeuf.

Hilarious!  That’s about the quality of Jonah Goldberg’s recent posting at NRO, titled “Close Encounters with a ‘Living Constitution'”.

Here’s the setup.  Goldberg orders an Arizona Omelet at the diner, the Red Flame.  But the server brings him a bowl of oatmeal.  When Goldberg objects that he didn’t order this, the server replies that he, in fact, did order the oatmeal.

“This is oatmeal,” I’d say. “The menu says that the Arizona Omelet has cheese and onions and jalapenos in it. It also says it’s an omelet.”

Waitress: “Well, we here at the Red Flame believe that the menu is a living, breathing document that changes with the times. Oatmeal is healthier than an omelet, and we feel that people should eat more of it. So, we only serve oatmeal, but we call it by different names.

The point, as we see, given the analogy, is that taking X as a ‘living document’ is just to impose one’s will on the document.  Words don’t mean what they mean at all.  Or they mean what we just want them to mean.  And here’s how Goldberg sees the plausibility of this line of thought:

That’s more like how the doctrine of the “Living Constitution” works in real life. A judge makes a small leap of interpretation that seems reasonable — say, replacing onions with shallots, which after all, are a kind of onion. Then the next judge makes another incremental hop in interpretation. And then another. And another. Until eventually the waitress brings me the head of Alfredo Garcia

So Goldberg’s reasoning is that because it happens in ‘incremental steps,’ there will be no constraint on how to read the Constitution or a menu, for that matter.   But the problem is that there must still be a ‘reasonable interpretation’ at each of these steps.  Red onions for shallots… and note what makes it reasonable is that they are kinds of onions.  (And note that it’s a replacement, not a re-interpretation.)
But here’s the big lie to the reasoning — none of the ‘reasonable’ replacements actually end up with what Goldberg takes as obvious — that there’s a series of reasonable interpretations of ‘omelet’ that yields a bowl of oatmeal.
Goldberg closes by noting how he sees the dialectical situation:
There are some issues where I think liberals have a sincerely held, rational, and legitimate point of view that I simply disagree with. But the doctrine of the Living Constitution is not one of them.
You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me.  At no point in time does someone who cares about individual rights thinks that there would be a problem with the dead hand?
And so, we see a fallacy double-dip.  First, there’s the faulty analogy between the situation of Living Document interpretation of the Constitution and the Red Fire Diner’s omelet, and the case Goldberg makes for it as a slippery slope.
The ur-fallacy here is the slippery slope, since reasonable interpretations don’t have the all-too-easy-slide to voluntarist re-writing, the slope isn’t slippery.  So the two cases aren’t analogous.  Oh well, if this is how well Goldberg thinks who hold Living Document views reason, then of course he shouldn’t think there’s a rational and reasonable disagreement.  But he’s not reasonably held that view.

Everyone deserves property

One oft-invoked criticism of “Critical Thinking” texts is that they use arguments no one would ever make.  Well, in the first place, there’s pedagogical value to that.  Second, people make all sorts of crappy arguments.  Here’s a laughably silly textbook version of the slippery slope (Mother Jones via Daily Kos):

Well how far will [it] go? Last year, February 29, 2012, the Journal of Ethics in Australia, they debated that. They said we already know abortion is fine, why stop in the womb? Why not three months after. Why should we end the responsibility at that point? It could happen in America. Florida’s trying to do it right now and so is Georgia. Planned Parenthood. Because we allowed that slippery slope. Every human being deserves life, liberty, and property.

Forget the slippery slope, everyone deserves property?  How much property?  If we allow that slippery slope, everyone will demand to be as wealthy as Donald Trump.*

*(a joke).



You don’t have to be good at maths to be rich.  Here’s Godwinizer Tom Perkins on taxing the “1 percent” (from TPM):

“The fear is wealth tax, higher taxes, higher death taxes — just more taxes until there is no more 1%,” he said, as quoted by CNN Money. “And that that will creep down to the 5% and then the 10%.

In addition to failing to understand marginal tax rates and basic math, this also a slippery slope.  This is probably worse than his proposal that every dollar of tax paid ought to equal a vote:

“The Tom Perkins system is: You don’t get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes,” Perkins responded, as quoted by CNNMoney. “But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How’s that?

It might be easier just to give people who pay no taxes less than an entire vote, say 3/5ths.

You justify your war with the analogies you have

Believe it or not, this is an argument for attacking Syria:

World War II began 74 years ago Sunday when German troops invaded Poland. The invasion conclusively discredited the concept of “appeasement” as a foreign policy for, well, the next 74 years. But if the U.S. Congress opposes authorization of the military mission to Syria that President Obama has now handed off to it, and if Obama uses that as an excuse to back further away from enforcement of his “red line,” the “A” word will likely come to dominate the international debate once again.

And Barack Obama, who in his first term was known as the vanquisher of Osama bin Laden, could come out of his second looking more like Neville Chamberlain.

I don’t want to overstate things. Bashar al-Assad, a tinpot dictator who is fighting only for his own survival, is no Hitler. He’s not set to overrun an entire continent. And the “lessons of Munich” and the dangers of appeasement are generally overdrawn. But, after all, it was Secretary of State John Kerry who lumped Assad with the Fuehrer on the talk shows Sunday, saying that he “now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein [who] have used these weapons in time of war.” (Technically, Hitler’s only use of gas was not on the battlefield but to kill millions in extermination camps.)

Gee, if “appeasement,” “Munich,” and “Hitler” are terrible analogies to the civil war in Syria, why use them?  My advice would be not.  But that’s why I don’t make the big money.

But in all seriousness, all the talk of Hitler and Munich and such  is really just to set up the mother of all slippery slopes (for those keeping track at home, that was a reference to Saddam Hussein of Gulf Wars I and II fame–he also used to be Hitler):

Yet that international order is what is now in some danger, 74 years later. After all, it was just this kind of war weariness that created Neville Chamberlain, and his foreign policy of “positive appeasement” as he called it, in the years after the terrible bloodletting of World War I. If one becomes unwilling to strike dictators and mass murderers, all that remains is to appease them.

Come to think of it, this is also a false dichotomy: there’s “appeasing” (giving in to expansionist and genocidal demands–here Assad has none that I’m aware of) and military strikes.  I can imagine one or two other possibilities.

Today x, tomorrow why?

By nearly any measure–ok, probably by every measure, CEO pay is vastly disproportionate to the pay of the average worker.  Here’s one example (via Bloomberg):

Former fashion jewelry saleswoman Rebecca Gonzales and former Chief Executive Officer Ron Johnson have one thing in common: J.C. Penney Co. (JCP) no longer employs either.

The similarity ends there. Johnson, 54, got a compensation package worth 1,795 times the average wage and benefits of a U.S. department store worker when he was hired in November 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Gonzales’s hourly wage was $8.30 that year.

Read the rest of the article (charts and all).  In light of this and similar facts, Congress tried to work up something.  Since Congress mostly sucks at lawmaking, they passed a rule that companies need at least to disclose the ratio.

This rule was not long for the world, as the House Financial Services Committee has just voted to repeal that mandate.  One member, Jeb Hensarling, reasoned thusly:

Today, joked House Financial Services chair Jeb Hensarling from Texas, CEO-worker pay disclosure, tomorrow a mandate that companies calculate the ratio of office supplies they get from national big box retailers to the goods they get from locals — or the ratio of healthy to unhealthy drinks in company soda machines.

Yes, when will these burdensome disclosures end?

Be prepared … for that slippery slope

Mark Tooley objects to the Boy Scouts no longer discriminating against gay scouts.  He sees it as a trend of the emasculation of male culture, a kind of conformity to the kind of society “determined to echo the preening voice of the sort of nagging school guidance counselor whom every adolescent boy dreads and seeks to avoid”.  Yes, Tooley is analogizing contemporary politics to high school boys and their attitudes.  The point for the NS readers is that he’s not just got a concern about the reasons, but also a concern about the consequences.  He sees larger trouble brewing, and more than just the fact that BSA scoutmasters will likely be gay, too:

[It is not yet clear]what this policy means for transsexuals. Cross-dressing Scouts? Only one of countless issues that inevitably now will arise under the rubric of protected “orientation or preference.” For a more likely scenario, how about teenage Scouts wanting openly to celebrate their pornographic interests?

Yes, so Tooley’s mind has run from the question of whether there should be no prohibition on gay scouts to whether if they let them in, whether they’ll have to let them wear, you know, Priscilla Queen of the Desert wear for the backpacking trip.  Or whether their interest in pornography will be allowable and protected.

It’s really two slopes, and separate ones.  The ‘transsexuals’ line is an error for the simple reason that if there’s a uniform, there’s a uniform.  So the same reason why Johnny can’t wear his All-State football jersey on the backpacking trip is the same reason why Sam can’t wear his sundress.  Done.

The pornography issue is, again, simple.  Exposing the boys to sexually explicit material, even if they do it themselves, isn’t lawful. What does Tooley think? That once you let the gays in, you might as well fire up the film projector for the stag films?  (I suspect that it’s a background equivocation of protecting the boys’ interests — what if they’re interested in porn?, he asks.)  He even thinks it’s “more likely”!  More likely than what?

Slippery coke

Check out this  Brian McFaden Comic (at the Daily Kos):*

Slippery slope

Seems like your standard slippery slope argument to me (in addition to some poignant commentary on how wasteful this particular argument is). We’ve talked about this a lot here–here’s one by Scott from a few weeks ago.  The question there was what distinguishes the slippery slope from the bumpy staircase.

I think of this whenever I walk through the outdoor area separating the building that houses my office from the rest of campus.  It used to be that smokers (such as I once was) would occupy tables in this covered area.  Now the area is off limits to smokers.  I can see a smoker’s argument going something like this:

banning smoking outdoors in this one place will lead to banning smoking outdoors in another place, and eventually to the banning of smoking in all public places on campus.

This is certainly a slippery slope argument, but it doesn’t seem fallacious to me.  There’s no significant conceptual distinction between the various moves.  I imagine the justification is that the University has the right to regulate toxic chemicals on campus.  They only do it piecemeal so as not to shock anyone.  Full disclosure, I look forward to the universal ban.

Back to Bloomberg.  Aside from the general question as to why start with giant soft drinks, this argument seems to be like the smoking argument.  If city government has the power to regulate such things, then there is no conceptual distinction between various other food-related regulations.  There seems in other words to be no relevant difference between the giant softdrink and the megabaconator.  Banning the one is just like banning the other.

*an earlier version mistakenly attributed the comic to Tom Tomorrow.

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.


At least it’s an ethos

The other day George Will countered the claim that high voter turnout is a sign of civic health by reminding everyone that Nazis came to power as a result of high voter turnout.  An observant commenter at Media Matters noted correctly that Hitler’s party lost the 1932 Presidential election 53-36.  More telling, however, is how the Nazis won a majority of seats in the March 1933 election:

Six days before the scheduled election date, the German parliament building was set alight in the Reichstag fire, allegedly by the Dutch Communist Marinus van der Lubbe. This event reduced the popularity of the KPD, and enabled Hitler to persuade President Hindenburg to pass the Reichstag Fire Decree as an emergency decree according to Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. This emergency law removed many civil liberties and allowed the arrest of Ernst Thälmann and 4,000 leaders and members of the KPD[4] shortly before the election, suppressing the Communist vote and consolidating the position of the Nazis. The KPD was “effectively outlawed from 28 February 1933”, although it was not completely banned until the day after the election.[5] While at that time not as heavily oppressed as the Communists, the Social Democrats were also restricted in their actions, as the party’s leadership had already fled to Prague and many members were acting only from the underground. Hence, the fire is widely believed to have had a major effect on the outcome of the election. As replacement, and for 10 years to come, the new parliament used the Kroll Opera House for its meetings.

They won, in other words, by voter suppression (more on that later).  Anyway, an even more silly part of Will’s argument comes earlier:

The poet Carl Sandburg supposedly was asked by a young playwright to attend a rehearsal. Sandburg did but fell asleep. The playwright exclaimed, “How could you sleep when you knew I wanted your opinion?” Sandburg replied, “Sleep is an opinion.”

So is nonvoting. Remember this as the Obama administration mounts a drive to federalize voter registration, a step toward making voting mandatory.

What to call this move?  On the one hand, it’s a slippery slope: “a step toward making voting mandatory.”  But that is silly, as having an election is a step toward making voting mandatory.  A step toward making voting mandatory as such would be something like this: The Obama administration will now require proof of voting in order to qualify for a gay marriage.  Since obviously gay marriage will be required of everyone who shows proof of firearm non-ownership, and proof of firearm non-ownership will be required of everyone, ipso facto, you get the idea.

Aside from the slippery slope, Will is attacking a hollow man: no one has advocated making voting mandatory.  So why does he say this?  Here’s his justification:

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of Holder’s civil rights division, rightly says that voting too often is “an endurance contest” involving a long wait in line, frequently because of questions about voters’ registrations. But the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spa­kovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, says:

“One of the reasons that state voter registration rolls are in such poor shape today — with large numbers of voters who are dead, have moved or are noncitizens — is because of the restrictive standards imposed by the federal government in 1993 by the National Voter Registration Act. That law made it very difficult to remove ineligible voters. Local jurisdictions were sued so often by the Justice Department when they tried to remove ineligible voters, many stopped trying to clean up their lists at all. That is why there are many places around the country where the number of registered voters is greater than the Census says there are individuals of voting age.”

Notice the perverse dialectic by which Washington aggrandizes its power: It promises to ameliorate problems exacerbated by its supposedly ameliorative policies. Notice, too, the logic of Perez’s thesis that “our democracy is stronger when more people have a say in electing their leaders.” Therefore the public good would be served by penalizing nonvoting, as Australia, Belgium and at least 10 other countries do. Liberals love mandates (e.g., health insurance). Why not mandatory voting?

No, that is not the logic of Perez’s thesis, that’s Will’s distortion of his logic.  But look at the claim about the insurance mandate.  For Pete’s sake, the health insurance mandate originated with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and it was implemented by Mitt Romney, when he was Republican Governor of Massachusetts.  This is evidence that liberals love mandates.   Worse, and returning to the theme of voter suppression, Will’s authority that the voting system is a wreck is the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky: the very fraud responsible for the myth of voter fraud.

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.