Category Archives: Slippery Slope

Slip Slidin’ to 20 Billion

Crooks and Liars link to a Senate committee discussion featuring Al Franken, Bernie Sanders, and Rand Paul on funding the Older Americans Act–a program that provides services to the elderly to allow them to remain in their homes and be healthy.

PAUL: I appreciate the great and I think very collegial discussion, and we do have different opinions. Some of us believe more in the ability of government to cure problems and some of us believe more in the ability of private charity to cure these problems. I guess what I still find curious though is that if we are saving money with the two billion dollars we spend, perhaps we should give you 20 billion. Is there a limit? Where would we get to, how much money should we give you to save money? So if we spend federal money to save money where is the limit? I think we could reach a point of absurdity. Thank you.

FRANKEN: I think you just did.

This is probably not a slippery slope argument, though it has some similarities to one. In fact, it's hard to figure out what Paul's point is.

P1) If spending x produces savings, then spending 10x would save 10x as much.

P2) This will reach absurdity.

C) Therefore, we shouldn't spend x.

This is not a good argument, but primarily because premise 1 seems false. Most preventative expenditures are not infinitely scalable (how much preventative maintenance should you do on your car, as Crooks and Liars notes), and so the absurdity never gets generated.

I think, in fact, there is a sort of equivocation at the root of Paul's rhetoric.Rand Paul is obtusely refusing to admit that when you spend money in order to reduce future expenditures that you would otherwise be forced to incur we can consider these "savings." He seems to be relying on a narrow notion that would define savings and spending as contradictory concepts. Thus, spending cannot be savings and vice versa. This latter sense of savings and spending is certainly operative in our language ("How can spending money be saving money?"). But, Franken reasonably expects a bit more sophistication than Rand Paul is able to muster. Rand's problem, I think, is that he needs to deny that those savings will be realized, but is unable to do so, and so falls back and some very silly twaddle.



Their agenda is plain

American Spectator has a regular blog series called Among the Intellectualioids.  Check out the picture of who the intellectualoids are — grubby-looking, beret-wearing, bad-hair eggheads.  Wait… is that Satan on the far left?

In the series' recent installment, Christopher Orlet argues in "The End of Evil" that a new intellectualiod menace is looming: the view that there is no evil.  Simon Baron-Cohen holds that the actions we deem evil are most often the consequence of a particular mental disorder characterized by an empathy deficiency.  Orlet glosses the view:

The Cambridge don finds the whole idea of evil unhelpful. What's more, it is simplistic and unscientific. It smacks of the Bible and ancient superstitions. And it tells us nothing. Why is one evil? Again, it comes down to the inability to empathize or to identify with others.

To this end, Baron-Cohen has devised six degrees of empathy. His empathy spectrum would award a six to someone like Bill Clinton, who claimed to be able to feel the pain of an entire nation, and a zero to the husband who honestly answers his wife's query about whether her jeans makes her butt look big. At the peak of the bell curve stands your Average Empathy Joe who tears up at Schindler's List, but remains dry-eyed if not slightly nauseous during the Titanic.

Note, by the way, the first couple sentences should be read with a mocking tone: This Cambridge don believes these things. (Modus Tonens alert)  All the examples of the variety of scores are Orlet's of course.  Especially the one about the jeans.  Actually, it seems the whole selection should be read with a mocking tone. 

Here's Orlet finally stating the view (and this time without detectable tone):

Baron-Cohen fingers our hormones, genes, and neglectful mothers as causes for empathy deficiency. One example: his research indicates the more testosterone you are exposed to in the womb, the less empathy you will have.

Ah, but once Orlet states the view, he  then identifies the real program behind it (and the broader commitment trying to understand why people do horrible things):

Naturally, if the problem is largely genetic and hormonal, as Baron-Cohen argues, it can be eradicated through gene/hormone therapy, thus setting the stage for an edenic future where Israelis and Palestinians group hug and your co-workers do not steal your bologna sandwiches from the lunchroom fridge.

Baron-Cohen's agenda is plain. Close the prisons and admit criminals to hospitals where ObamaCare can work its magic. After all, "no one is responsible for his own genes."


The slippery slope to Obamacare playing the role of prison warden.  First, the view is out to explain why people do things that are evil, not just wrong.  The objective is to give an account not of how someone could make a moral error, one that any of us could make (for example, stealing bubble gum).  No. Rather, the objective is to account for moral transgressions that we cannot think our way into, ones that are not normal, run of the mill moral errors.  We aren't just shocked at the acts, we are puzzled by the persons who commit those acts.  Calling those persons 'evil' is fine, but it (as Orlet sarcastically notes) does not explain anything.  Nor does it make it such that the punishments we give these people can have any effect other than inflict suffering on them.  Only if one is a pure retributivist about punishment would one not be interested in understanding why people are or do evil. 

Second, nothing introduces a slippery slope argument better than phrases like "Their agenda is plain…" or "You know where that leads…".  But Obamacare is about medial coverage for people who haven't got it.  Once the state takes a person into custody for committing a crime, the state is responsible for that person's care.  If the medical evidence is that the person suffers from a psychological illness, shouldn't it be treated? 

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.

What’s next?

A few years back, Violet Palmer refereed an NBA playoff game, and there were bubbling discussions of women refereeing in the NCAA men's tournament. Candace Parker won a dunk contest.  She also dunked two times on Army.  Sports writers felt they needed to say something about these things.  Being sports writers, they said stupid things.  Here's Stephen Moore, President of the Club for Growth, writing in National Review:

This year they allowed a woman ref a men's NCAA game. Liberals celebrate this breakthrough as a triumph for gender equity. The NCAA has been touting this as example of how progressive they are. I see it as an obscenity. Is there no area in life where men can take vacation from women? What's next? Women invited to bachelor parties? Women in combat? (Oh yeah, they've done that already.)

Ah, yes. "What's next?"  It is the universal signal for: here comes a blatant slippery slope argument.    Oh, and women already come to bachelor parties. I don't know what kind of bachelor parties Moore goes to, but they don't sound any fun.  The fact that women are in combat has less to do with progressive agendas and more to do with the fact that war is unpredictable.  If you read the whole article, it gets weird.  Moore keeps coming back to what a babe Bonnie Bernstein is and how she needs to do interviews in halter tops.  Stephen Moore, that's creepy, dude. You need a good editor and a cold shower.  So, what's next? Stephen Moore makes proclamations that are sexist, stalker-creepy, and ignorant of the facts?  He also brings his prodigous critical skills to bear on financial policy at NRO (bonus points for spotting the line-drawing form of false dilemmas in that one).  

In similar fashion, ESPN's Jason Whitlock writes about Candace Parker's dunking, and sees the distinction between the men's and women's games fading.  Now, … wait for it … here … it … comes:

What's next? First women's hooper to cover her entire body in prison tattoos? WNBA players investigated for running up huge tabs in the champagne room of the Gold Club? Sue Bird strangles her coach at practice? Lisa Leslie attacks beer-tossing empty seat, sparks nasty melee between players and bored arena ushers?

Ach!  What's next?  What's next!  No, that's not what's next.  Now, Whitlock has a point in the article, namely, that celebrating Parker's weak dunking, we're actually patronizing her game and belittling women's basketball.  That's a good point, but he doesn't need to make it with this sort of slippery slope argument.  In fact, in doing that, he's done the same thing. 

Slippery Slopes and Puppies

Charles Kruse, President of the Missouri Farm Bureau, was recently interviewed by the New York Times about Missouri's upcoming Referendum Vote (Prop. B) outlawing overcrowded dog breeding operations and  setting living standards for dogs owned by breeders (adequate shelter, rest time between litters, access to outdoors, not living in excrement, and so on).  In effect, the proposed law outlaws puppy mills, and the Humane Society of Missouri is behind the proposition. Here's what Kruse had to say:

This is just a first step…. It’s pretty clear their ultimate desire is to eliminate the livestock industry in the United States.

Wuh?  This is about dogs.  They don't eat those in Missouri, do they?  (I went to WUSTL for undergrad, and I don't remember them serving dog anywhere in St.L., but that was the city, and all.) But seriously, folks, how does making it illegal to make a dog have litter after litter in squalid conditions with no time to regain her heath or even be healthy at all make it so that there's no livestock industry?  Even if this were the Humane Society's endgame, what's wrong with treating dogs in ways that aren't utterly horrible?

You know that Kruse, on the Farm Bureau website, has an answer to that question:

“Furthermore, if Proposition B passes, these radical animal rights organizations and individuals won’t stop there.  As experienced in other states, they will work to further regulate Missouri farmers, driving them out of business as well and driving up food costs,” said Kruse.

Oh, I see.  It's not that this sets a precedent, it's that because the Humane Society promotes vegetarianism, a win for them about treating dogs decently is a blow to anyone raising chickens or cows for slaughter.  They won't stop there.  But what if there is a perfectly legitimate position, and there are other reasons to oppose where they want to go from there?  What about that? 

There's an old distinction to make between slippery slopes and bumpy staircases.  It seems that this is more bumpy than slippery.  Moreover, what's Kruse got against dogs? 

Picking the Low Fruit

While feeling guilty about supplanting Scott's great post on Subjunctive Tu Quoques, (which you should read first–and while I'm at it, how did I not know about this? All that time studying particles in Greek! Here's the full link. Bravo.) I thought I might pick some low hanging fruit.

An absolute treasure trove of logical fallacies can be found through the various smear-campaigns of Center for Consumer Freedom. In case you haven't come across these folks before, NYT had a short piece a few months ago describing CCF's campaigns on behalf of various corporate interests against not for profit advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Humane Society of the United States. I'm sure Christopher Buckley didn't have these guys in mind when he wrote Thank you for Smoking but the comedy at times is equally broad.

Anyway, HSUS is squarely within their sights and sites these days as are any attempts to regulate "humane" conditions for livestock. Enter David Martosko, the mind behind, in the Sacramento Bee:

What's really at stake here is that word: "humane." HSUS seems to want a monopoly on it, even though other animal welfare-oriented groups – and plenty of scientists – disagree with its agenda. And that agenda is where the rubber meets the road: HSUS is run by vegans who don't believe anyone should eat eggs, regardless of how or where they were produced.

Most recently, HSUS has opposed attempts by California lawmakers to specifically define the standards mandated by Proposition 2. The very vague language that California voters approved in 2008 gives HSUS's enormous legal team enough wiggle room to hassle farmers who don't see things HSUS's way.

Of course, enriched chicken cages could be furnished with couches, Jacuzzis, treadmills and iPads, and activists who believe in "rights" for birds would still complain about them. HSUS is among them. And its vision of what's "humane" is outside the mainstream.

Since HSUS's view is that a vegan diet is the only "humane" way to eat, this whole "cage-free" egg campaign is a sideshow. It's a temporary step toward the group's larger goal.

Much of the argument against HSUS you find here and elsewhere has to do with what they "really want." Here it includes a "monopoly" on the word "humane" (whatever that means) and forcing everyone to eat tofu-scramble rather than scrambled eggs. Often evidence is trotted out in support of this agenda comprised of quotations from employees and fellow-travelers of HSUS, not occasionally, taken baldly out of context.

Nevertheless, there's an interesting argument from true intention here that is sort of like a circumstantial ad hominem  but seems interestingly different. It looks like the structure is something along the lines of:

1. P supports policy x (cage free housing).

2. P's real intention is to adopt radical end y (veganism).

3. Therefore, we should resist policy x (cage free housing).

It's not a simple ad hominem in this form since it doesn't deny the truth of a claim, though it could be formulated as a circumstantial ad hominem. What seems to be added is an implicit slippery slope argument that suggests that because P supports y we should not allow x since it would advance y. This is the sort of argument that lots of tea-party folks seem to fall back on–Obama's real intention is to turn the country into a socialist state, Obama advocates health care reform,Therefore we should resist health care reform. But, it's certainly not limited to the right-wing. We hear similar arguments made about corporations and certain other administrations. I don't have an example to hand right now, but I'm sure we can come up with a bunch. It's really the laziest of all argumentative vices.

In the case of President Obama the "real intention" premise is so laughable that the logical flaw in the argument is overshadowed by the obvious falsity of the premise. Most of these "real intentions"premises have a cartoonish world domination feel to them. But in the HSUS case it is, perhaps, in some sense true that HSUS are advocates of veganism (or their CEO is, or many of their members are–I'm not sure how to think about ascriptions of beliefs to organizations) and maybe even want to further that end through HSUS's actions. But, even if that's true, the conclusion does not seem to follow without some additional premises connecting x and y more closely, just like slippery slopes arguments.

Nevertheless, it is a really bad argument–even if HSUS does believe that everyone should become vegan this says little about whether their opposition to enriched cage housing as less humane than free range or other cage-less alternatives is well founded. Though to be fair to Martosko he does offer appeals to several expert organizations (American Humane Association, Temple Grandin and the American Veterinary Medical Association) who do hold that enriched cage housing is humane. But, rather than engage their serious disagreements over the substantive issue, he prefers the lazy route.

Iroquois Twists

Sorry for the absence–I was on vacation.  To start off another season of The Non Sequitur, here's our favorite pseudo-intellectual, George Will on the constitutionality of health care legislation.  I wonder if we have a case of the slippery slope here:

Although Democrats think their health-care legislation faces smooth sailing to implementation, there is a rock dead ahead — a constitutional challenge to the legislation's core. Democrats who assume it is constitutional to make it mandatory for Americans to purchase health insurance should answer some questions:

Would it be constitutional for the government to legislate compulsory calisthenics for all Americans? If not, why not? If it would be, in what sense does the nation still have constitutional, meaning limited, government?

Supporters of the mandate say Congress can impose the legislation under the enumerated power to regulate interstate commerce. Since the New Deal, courts have made this power capacious enough to include regulating intrastate activity that "substantially affects" interstate commerce. Hence Congress could constitutionally ban racial discrimination in "public accommodations" — restaurants, motels, etc. — as an impediment to interstate commercial activity.

Opponents of the mandate say: Unless the commerce clause is infinitely elastic — in which case, Congress can do anything — it does not authorize Congress to forbid the inactivity of not making a commercial transaction, of not purchasing a product (health insurance) from a private provider.

One reason we might call this a slippery slope is that Will's objection hinges on permissiveness: if we allow activity x, then we will eventually have to allow absurd activity y, as they are fundamentally or in principle no different.  Permitting the one–the (sometimes subsidized) purchase of health insurance) will logically compel us to permit the other (the mandatory practice of morning jumping jacks).  The argument, then, isn't against the current proposal, it's against exercise, which will follow logically from the current proposal.  

Well that's just dumb.  There are lots of arguments against the current lame proposal in Congress.  This is not one of them. 

Kang or Kodos

Normally the slippery-slope style argument predicts (sometimes but not always fallaciously) a kind of political or moral disaster if a certain kind of thing is allowed.  For this reason I sometimes wonder whether such an argument should be called "argument from permissiveness."  For, if we permit gay marriage, then all manner of things must also be allowed (triple marriage, quadruple marriage, limited liability companies, etc.).  They serve usually as a warning against something relatively minor and incremental: if they get their foot in the door, then you will have to contend with consequences x, y, and dreaded z!  

On this topic, the blogosphere is a aflame with Orrin Hatch's dire warning about the consequences of socialized medicine:

HATCH: That’s their goal. Move people into government that way. Do it in increments. They’ve actually said it. They’ve said it out loud.

Q: This is a step-by-step approach —

HATCH: A step-by-step approach to socialized medicine. And if they get there, of course, you’re going to have a very rough time having a two-party system in this country, because almost everybody’s going to say, “All we ever were, all we ever are, all we ever hope to be depends on the Democratic Party.”

Q: They’ll have reduced the American people to dependency on the federal government.

HATCH: Yeah, you got that right. That’s their goal. That’s what keeps Democrats in power.

There is also a little bit of "you're only saying that because. . . " in here: the Democrats only want health care reform because it keeps them in power.  I think there are more pressing reasons to want it, such as the fact that our current system is killing us, but maybe I'm naive.  

The weird thing about this particular slippery slope is that the consequence Hatch warns against is that people are going to like the Democratic party.  Such will be their adoration that they abolish by their votes the two-party system.

In the first place I think that's very unlikely, but if it were likely–and if Hatch weren't just lying–he'd see that he has just admitted that people would embrace the idea of "socialized medicine"–if they didn't like it,they wouldn't continue in Hatch's fantasy scenario to vote for Democrats.

I can’t change my mind

Speaking of one of the weirdest op-eds I've ever seen, Bob Somerby (aka the Daily Howler) asks:

For years, we have asked why the professors don’t help us with our floundering discourse. When our journalists fail to serve, who don’t the professors step forward to help? Where are all the professors of logic, with their vast clarification skills? Why don’t the professors step in to straighten our broken logic?

The question is obviously rhetorical, but he continues to ask it, so here's an answer.  John Holbo, at Crooked Timber, is a professor of philosophy, and he has stepped up to the plate (as have many others).  Holbo recently addressed the very kind of argument Somerby was complaining about (here and here).  We talked about that here the other day.  But, just for fun, and because Bob wonders where the professors of logic are, and I'm one of those, let's have a look see at what he was talking about.  

The op-ed in question is by Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Study (I'm not kidding).  She writes:

His administration now agrees with the analysts who argue that only by ensuring that no one games the system can reform be made to work. The mandate serves to ensure that individuals do not buy insurance only when they are ill. Other elements of the reform similarly serve to ensure that neither insurance companies nor employers will game the system. As Paul Krugman has argued in the New York Times, each of these strategies to prevent gaming is necessary to make the whole thing work. The point, though, is that the push for implementation has turned Obama's policies into something other than what he promised.

This change in Obama's position goes a long way toward explaining the objections to the new reforms that are being raised vociferously through grass-roots action by citizens on the right. The issue here is not that these citizens consider Obama untrustworthy — though they do. The issue, rather, is that they recognize that the stated goals and structure of a policy may not fully capture its full range of outcomes in practice. This is why these citizens, including professionally briefed participants such as Sarah Palin, can continue to maintain, in the face of a barrage of insistences to the contrary, that the reforms will (1) result in rationing and (2) establish "death panels."

Gee professor, as others have pointed out (here and here for examples), every one is justified in making the most outlandish slippery slope arguments since it is a fact of nature that the "stated goals and structure of a policy may not fully capture its full range of outcomes in practice."  And no, for the love of Mike, a change in a proposal does not open the door to that inference, as she suggests.  While perhaps not a fact of nature qua nature, I think moderate (or even extreme) changes in the positions one advocates are a normal reaction to the facts on the ground.

Think about this for a second.  Given the professor's argument, no policy maker (or person) can change a position without having her real motives stretched to include the most extreme and unlikely consequence.  So, take heed, policy people, if you change your mind ever so little then Danielle Allen will wonder whether you really want to turn old people into Soylent Green.

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.