Category Archives: Slippery Slope

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.



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.

Slippery slopes… to rationality!

It’s slippery slope week at the NS.  Here’s a humorous slope argument at The Onion.

Condemning the decision as “dangerously reasonable” and “beyond level-headed,” vocal opponents of same-sex marriage strongly cautioned that this morning’s Supreme Court rulings supporting gay rights could put the United States on a one-way, slippery slope to rationality.

Ha! Well, you know, the acceptability of a slippery slope argument depends on how likely the consequent is made by the antecedent.  Not seeing that, really.  There are lots of bumps on that staircase.  Mostly comprised by the voting decisions of the denizens of Texas, Utah, Alabama, and so on.

Slip’n’slide, with beastiality at the bottom

Huffpo’s got a nice review of how “the haters” are “freaking out” about DOMA being struck down by the Supreme Court.  Got a nice shot of a tweet from Bryan Fisher, from the American Family Association, with the classic slippery slope on homosexuality.

The DOMA ruling has now made the normalization of polygamy, pedophilia, incest and bestiality inevitable. Matter of time.

Do you like slippery on your slope?  Inevitable. Of course, the fact that two of these four involve entities that can’t give consent doesn’t prevent Fisher from lumping them all together.

The NSA knows about your analogy and slippery slope

In response to challenges to the legality and morality of the NSA’s surveillance program, President Obama said we should have a healthy debate about it (video HERE).  This occasions George Neumayr at the American Spectator to make this comparison:

He is open to a “healthy” debate about it. Holder and Obama are like drunk drivers who cause a pile-up and then stroll back innocently to see if they can “help.”

And when President Obama makes it clear that the content of the calls is not monitored, Neumayr sees a slope looming:

In a few years, the line will move to: yes, we are listening to your calls, but we are not recording them; yes, we are forcing you to pay for abortion but we are not requiring you undergo one.

The trouble is that in both the analogy and in the slippery slope, we have Neumayr assuming that the harm is already in the surveillance as it is.  Notice that both of the Obama replies to criticism has been to challenge that thought — the harm of surveillance would be on content.


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 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.


Mallard Fillmore’s critique by reportage?

Here's a recent Mallard Fillmore cartoon.  It portrays president Obama making two inferences.  First, there is the argument by projected increase:

P1: The rate of entitlements in 1962 was 6%

P2: The rate of entitlements in 2012 is 35%

C1: Entitlements are increasing at a rate of .58% a year.

The second inference is the regular conservative culture of dependency argument:

P3: If one depends on entitlements, one is dependent on the state.

P4: If one is dependent on the state, then one will vote for the welfare state

P5: If one votes for the welfare state, then one will vote for liberals.

C2: Those dependent on entitlements will vote for liberals.

Putting C1 and C2 together yield the final conclusion:

C3: The proportional voting block for liberals is increasing at .58% a year.

There are other features of the presentation in the background, too, namely, that it's implied that Obama already knows about the culture of dependency argument, and that because of that, he's arranged to make P2 true.  That is, it's a politically motivated move to make people dependent so as to make them Democrats. 

Now, I think it's clear that Fillmore is displaying the inferences here critically.  So what's the critical edge to it?  Here's my best try to reconstruct it:  the implication is that Obama is intentionally making people dependent on government assistance to make them more liberal.  That will make them more inclined to vote for him and his party in this and upcoming elections. 

But two questions here.  First, I don't think it's appropriate to attribute the first argument to Obama.  Few people would think that rates of increase like this are projectable.  There was a story circulating a few years back that given the rate of dropoff of jobs in philosophy in the last year, we're only three years away from having NO jobs. Of course, few precipitous dropoffs are projectable, as there are natural bottoms and tops to markets.  So even after the precipitious dropoff in PHIL jobs, it hit a bottom.  The same, presumably, is the case with dependency, at least in the sense of entitlement deployed here.

The second is whether the second argument is right, too.  England has a conservative party.  They win elections. Shouldn't that be enough to show that government assistance doesn't guarantee political affiliation? 

Regardless, the weird thing is that the Fillmore cartoon presents the very bad inferences as not just intellectual moves, but as plans

This is the slippery slope we were talking about

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins has identified the cause of the recent scandal involving the Secret Service, prostitutes, and discounts.  It turns out that this is the causal or logical result of the breakdown of the moral order.  This breakdown in the moral order was caused by the repeal of "Don't ask don't tell" among other things.

Perkins: Yeah, you know that’s a great point. Just for a moment step back and look at the implications of this, over the weekend we saw the news of the President’s Secret Service detail in Colombia and the issue of them hiring prostitutes and now the White House is outraged about that. Actually in a meeting this morning my staff asked, ‘why should the President be upset’? It was actually legal; it was legal there to do that, so why should we be upset? Well, the fact is we intuitively know it’s wrong, there’s a moral law against that.

The same is true for what the President has done to the military enforcing open homosexuality in our military. You can change the law but you can’t change the moral law that’s behind it. You can change the positive law, the law that is created by man, but you can’t change the moral law, it’s wrong. So what you have is you have a total breakdown and you can’t pick and choose. Morality is not a smorgasbord; you can’t pick what you want. I think you’re absolutely right, this is a fundamental issue going forward because if we say ‘let them do what we want,’ what’s next? You cannot maintain moral order if you are willing to allow a few things to slide.

I'd say this is maximally dubious.  Among other things, as far as I know, heterosexual men do not look to homosexual men for moral or sexual guidance.  Unless they're really gay.  I guess that makes the Secret Service agents gay.