Slippery herring

I may have used this title (we are, after all, heading into year six on August 23rd), so I reserve the right to change it.  Today I think it would be worth it to think about the slippery slope fallacy.  Inspired by this post by John Holbo at the always worth reading (save for the occasional comment trolls) Crooked Timber.  Here in any case is a representative paragraph:

Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. And slippery slope arguments, arguments from unintended consequences and the paranoid style generally are the tribute conservatism pays to the deep appeal of progressive and liberal values. They are all attempts to outflank all that without engaging it. These are methods for getting off the hook of saying there’s something wrong with what liberals/progressives want. You pretend your opponent isn’t really a liberal/progressive but some secret radical. That’s method one. You pretend the results of liberal/progressive policies wouldn’t be truly liberal/progressive (because we would slip past all that or otherwise end up elsewhere than intended.) That’s method two. That’s pretty much it.

My informal sense (driven by an examination of the categories here on the left of this page) is that the real favorite of conservative types (at least the ones explicitly covered here) is that they prefer the straw man.  The straw man is a fallacy of relevance, a subject-changer in other words: don't attack the opponent's strong argument, go for the weak one (and then claim to have beaten the strong one).  Well that's one form of it, at least.  

But this seems to me to be what Holbo has in mind above anyway.  And I think he's certainly not wrong to notice the relevance issues brought about by slippery slopes.  It's important, to me at least, to keep the two questions distinct–though they may overlap in the mind of the fallacy employer.

In the first place, I think the slippery slope is a variety of causal fallacy–it alleges causal series where none will likely be the case.  So, if we do x (have national health care), in a few disastrous steps we'll be euthanizing the elderly.  Not bloody likely, as someone might say.

In a secondary way, however, such specious causal chains make us argue against the crazy thing–systematic government euthanasia programs–rather than the actual thing (some kind of moderate national health insurance system).  

This–the fact that you have two distinct logical issues–makes the fallacy hard to answer.  You have to answer each part separately, but, unfortunately, by then everyone has lost interest (if they had any to begin with).

6 thoughts on “Slippery herring”

  1. One of the reasons that this type of argument is so easily used by conservatives, is that conservative arguments tend to be made based on an explicit premise, and as liberals do not have a unifying premise (or at least they often neglect to state one) when pushing for a cause, this leaves the conservatives all the cards as they then get to define what the liberal premises are.
    For example.  A liberal might push for expanded health coverage.  The conservative will state that this is a bad idea, and that this is motivated by socialism.  The liberal will state that to be an ad hominem, but then will not state what their premise is (probably because liberals are more diverse than conservatives in the sources of their views.)  This refutation without counter-point leaves no alternative premise for their plan, leaving any observer to assume that yes, it is socialism (either that or subjectivism, but that’s no premise at all.)  By not explicitly stating the foundation of one’s argument, one cannot avoid being defined by the opposition (which is, as a rule, a bad thing.

  2. I have to say I don’t think I can figure out what you’re talking about.  If you think saying something is “motivated by socialism” is actually a legitimate strategy or even a legitimate question at this point then you’re miles away from where the current debate is on health care.

    If by “premise” you mean “no philosophical foundation” then I’d have to say you probably have not tried very hard to find one.  Many ordinary conservatives have no foundation or no “premise” as you put it, but that doesn’t mean there is no foundation for their view or that it’s ok for the liberal to just make one up.

  3. Oh no.  you misunderstand me.  I’m saying that when one does not directly state what their premise is, they cast a wider net of appeal at the cost of being pigeon-holed by their opponents.  I’m not saying that it’s legitimate to use a straw-man argument.  I’m saying that such an argument will be more effectively used against you if you do not first explain your philosophical / moral reasoning first.  And (to speak to the example of health care) because Obama used language emphasizing coverage of all Americans without having an explicitly stated plan (which is of course impossible with the necessity of political deals to get things passed) he made it very easy for conservatives to paint his motivations as socialist in nature.

  4. Nope.  I think (certain dishonest) conservatives will attack the motivations as socialist regardless of what the actual argument is–as is overly abundant in the current circumstance.  The various proposals on the table are very distant from socialism, and those who seek to paint them as such are simply lying.  This is not, I think, because of the failure to articulate reasons and motivations (which have been articulated by a lot of people including Obama), it’s because people don’t want to argue against the good argument, they want the weak one.

  5. Great post, John!
    There’s nothing that hurts more the conservatism movement than all these idiots that pretend to defend it.

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