Category Archives: Slippery Slope

Academic rights

A number of comments have suggested that the debate over gay marriage is a smokescreen or a red herring. Maybe. But the arguments are real. And it turns out they’re not only offered by nincompoops. I found the following analysis while wandering in the blogosphere:

>Yes, Senator James Inhofe (“I’m very proud that in the entire recorded history of our family, there has never been…any kind of homosexual relationship”) is a sick and moronic bigot. Bill Bennett is a crude embarassment, mostly to himself.

>But all their repulsive, and obsessive, arguments against gay marriage, such as this from Inhofe — “Now, stop and think. What’s going to be the results of this? The results are going to be that it’s going to be a very expensive thing, all these kids, many of them are going to be ending up on welfare” — are to be found, dressed up in fancy-pants pseudo-Alisdair MacIntyre rhetoric, in this document, the Princeton Principles on Marriage, released recently.

>The signatories to this document include such previously respectable conservatives as Jean Bethke Elshtain (Chicago), Robert George (of Princeton, not the young New York Post editorialist), Mary Ann Glendon (Harvard Law), Leon Kass (Chicago), Jeremy Rabkin (Cornell) and the legendary Mr. James Q. Wilson.

>On reading this, my first reaction was that if the academic left can be a little wacky and irresponsible, the academic right is wacky and despicable.

>The most specific of their arguments against gay marriage — which is only one of the “Principles,” but obviously they chose to release it to coincide with the debate — is that marriage equals monogamy and gay marriage “would likely corrode marital norms of sexual fidelity, since gay marriage advocates and gay couples tend to downplay the importance of sexual fidelity in their definition of marriage.” In other words, when gay people make a lifetime vow, they probably don’t really mean it because, well, you know how those gays are.

Read the rest at TPMcafe. I haven’t yet found the document he is referring to. If anyone can, I’d appreciate it.

Boy Scouts

We were pleased to find the following in our hometime rag, the Chicago Tribune:

>But Douglas Kmiec, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University in California, isn’t so sure the threat to religious liberty isn’t real.

>Kmiec pointed out that courts have allowed local governments to “retaliate” against the Boy Scouts, such as by denying them access to public parks and boat slips, after the organization refused to include homosexuals as scoutmasters.

>”If enough city councils and other public bodies penalize the Scouts for their decision,” Kmiec said, “the next step should be to revoke their tax exemptions because tax exemptions are dependent on being perceived as serving the public good.

>”The argument is that the Boy Scouts are no longer accomplishing the public good, since they discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. It would not be inconceivable to hear arguments that have been successful against the Scouts transferred against the churches.”

>But one of Kmiec’s colleagues was having none of that argument.

>Asked whether the hypothetical religious college at the top of this article could lose its tax-exempt status for refusing to recognize John and James as married students, constitutional law scholar Cass Sunstein said: “Sure–and if pigs had wings they could fly.”

>”The answer is no,” said Sunstein, a professor of law and political science at the University of Chicago. “That’s an argument that would be generated by advocacy groups trying to scare people. The likelihood religious organizations would lose their tax exemption is as close to zero as anything in law is.”

No matter how ridiculous such arguments are, they still get repeated. We heard other versions on NPR on Monday (nothing for now until we find the link). But take a look at this video featuring a slippery and sloping Bill Bennett, and an incredulous Jon Stewart. It’s worth watching.

Lapsus Matrimonii

The favorite rhetorical trick of the anti-gay marriage crowd is the slippery slope: if we allow gays to marry, then there is no reason three people can’t marry, and so forth and so on. Every sane reasoner knows that such arguments are ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean people don’t make them. The latest iteration of the slippery trope goes something like this:

>Activists are deployed across the country challenging traditional marriage, and it is more than likely that some additional judges will compound the Massachusetts mistake. This increased judicial approval of same-sex marriage will metastasize into the larger culture. Indeed, an insidious, but less recognized, consequence will be a push to demonize–and then punish–faith communities that refuse to bless homosexual unions.

So argues Douglas Kmiec, professor of Constitutional Law at Pepperdine University. To lubricate the slope, Professor Kmiec draws an extended analogy with the Boy Scouts:

>While it may be inconceivable for many to imagine America treating churches that oppose gay marriage the same as racists who opposed interracial marriage in the 1960s, just consider the fate of the Boy Scouts. The Scouts have paid dearly for asserting their 1st Amendment right not to be forced to accept gay scoutmasters. In retaliation, the Scouts have been denied access to public parks and boat slips, charitable donation campaigns and other government benefits. The endgame of gay activists is to strip the Boy Scouts (and by extension, any other organization that morally opposes gay marriage) of its tax-exempt status under both federal and state law.

In the first place, it should be noted that there is a fundamental difference between the Boy Scouts use of public funds and property to discriminate against individuals and any church’s right to bless what it wants. No one doubts Bob Jones University’s right to prohibit interracial dating among those who subscribe to its version of Christianity, but hardly anyone could argue that the university should receive public funds to further that policy.

Since the analogy fails, it’s hardly likely that churches will be punished in any other than the usual way–losing members and earning the moral disapproval of those who disagree with their view.

Besides this, what’s really confused about Kmiec’s argument is that he thinks churches will have to make the affirmative step of “blessing homosexual unions.” Conservative churches maintain all sorts of discriminatory belief systems (women can’t be priests, nor can married people, nor can, get this, open homosexuals) and they continue to exist. They even receive rich federal grants for charitable work not associated with proselytizing.

There is one positive thing about slippery slope arguments: they slide both ways. The person who claims outrageous conclusions will follow opens himself to criticism about what justifies his affirmation. So, one wonders, what justifies this:

>Many share the view, as I do, that marriage is a moral reality incapable of redefinition by court edict.

Just because many share the view that it’s a moral reality, doesn’t mean it is. If such things were determined by popular vote, all sorts of craziness would follow, wouldn’t it?

Slippery implication

I also remember reading this essay ten years ago in, I think, *Time*:

>As Newsweek notes, these stirrings for the mainstreaming of polygamy (or, more accurately, polyamory) have their roots in the increasing legitimization of gay marriage. In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is *utterly logical* for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement — the number restriction (two and only two) — is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.

And so I’ve noticed that Charles Krauthammer confuses the fallacious slippery slope with strict logical implication. Just because society grants rights to gay marriages between *two* persons of adult age (even by the judicial fiat of legitimate constitutional interpretation–see the first ten amendments to your U.S. Constitution for details) does not imply anything about *three* or *fifty-three* persons of adult or other age. As Krauthammer’s otherwise silly piece points out, marriage rites are conventional and so don’t obey the kind of implicational structure he suggests they do:

>On the other hand, polygamy was sanctioned, indeed common, in large parts of the world through large swaths of history, most notably the biblical Middle East and through much of the Islamic world.

So he does realize that gay marriage does not imply polygamy (or polyandry) and vice-versa. The connection is not logical or causal but merely psychological. Krauthammer’s argument–though studded with n0t-that-there’s-anything-wrong with-thats–does little to camouflage its illogical appeal to simple prejudice.

Unequal unfairness

Maryland has passed a law aimed specifically at corporations with more than 10,000 employees that fail to provide health benefits to fiscally significant portions of their workforce (and thus burden the state's real welfare system). Not surprisingly, of the four corporations that fall under the new law, only Wal-Mart falls short. According to the *Washington Post*:

Wal-Mart says that more than three-quarters of its sales associates have health insurance but acknowledged that some of its low-wage workers are on Medicaid, the state insurance program for the poor. Wal-Mart's not providing even the 21st Century version of benefits (that is to say, extremely reduced) to some of its workforce, constitutes, according to the Maryland legislature, a kind of corporate welfare; they are receiving a benefit but doing nothing to earn it. The state has to pick up the cost of Wal-Mart doing business (or figure out some other way of paying for the healthcare of those of Wal-Mart's workers and their children). Under the new law, passed over a veto, they have asked that Wal-Mart pick up the slack.

Maybe it's wrong to treat some corporate monoliths less equally than others, as George Will today writes, but the frothy eagerness with which he presses his case makes that argument hard to assess. He responds to the Maryland legislature by claiming that Wal-Mart's benefits are substantial and generous: a fact he had already denied–it's not a welfare state (i.e., a corporation that pays out benefits)–and not even Wal-Mart is willing to assert. Rather than dwell on the generosity of the benefits, or the principled view that low wage workers do not deserve benefits, Will opts for the ridiculous libertarian classic: the slippery slope:

Maryland's new law is, The Post says, "a legislative mugging masquerading as an act of benevolent social engineering." And the mugging of profitable businesses may be just beginning. The threshold of 10,000 employees can be lowered by knocking off a zero. Then two. The 8 percent requirement can be raised. It might be raised in Maryland if, as is possible, Wal-Mart's current policies almost reach it.

The dumb thing about this argument is that it's just one tweak away from being cogent. Rather than alleging that any law aimed at a corporate monolith could one day be aimed at the small businessman, Will could argue that as a matter of fairness, other employers ought to be required to bear healthcare costs.

Even dumber, however, is the claim that such a taxing of a corporate giant is somehow on par with actual illegal corruption:

 Meanwhile, people who are disgusted — and properly so — about corruption inside the Beltway should ask themselves this: Is it really worse than the kind of rent-seeking, and theft tarted up as compassion, just witnessed 20 miles east of the Beltway, in Annapolis?

No. It is not worse. The behavior of an elected body even in the perhaps imprudent exercise of its power to tax is quite unlike the demonstrably corrupt and illegal behavior of leading Republican politicians and lobbyists. Quite unlike it indeed.

Cultural equality

Multiculturalism seems to be the topic of the week. In USNews Michael Barone writes a column called “Cultures aren’t equal” and in The New York Times David Brooks writes a piece called “All Cultures are not Equal.” As the titles suggest, the point of these pieces is to argue that multiculturalism is bad. For Barone, the view bears some responsibility for the London bombings; For Brooks, multiculturalism obscures intelligent discourse.

First, Barone writes,

Multiculturalism is based on the lie that all cultures are morally equal. In practice, that soon degenerates to: All cultures all morally equal, except ours, which is worse. But all cultures are not equal in respecting representative government, guaranteed liberties, and the rule of law. And those things arose not simultaneously and in all cultures but in certain specific times and places–mostly in Britain and America but also in other parts of Europe.

In addition to the obvious slippery slope (“soon degenerates . . . “), Barone is guilty of the non causa pro causa or the wrong cause fallacy; the cause of the London bombing has something to do with the bombers buying the idea that divinely sanctioned mass murder is a legitimate way of advancing your political position–the recently jailed Eric Rudolph, homophobic abortion clinic bomber, knows something of this view–rather than say the tolerance of cultural difference.

For Brooks, on the other hand,

The gospel of multiculturalism preaches that all groups and cultures are equally wonderful. There are a certain number of close-minded thugs, especially on university campuses, who accuse anybody who asks intelligent questions about groups and enduring traits of being racist or sexist. The economists and scientists tend to assume that material factors drive history – resources and brain chemistry – because that’s what they can measure and count.

These poorly reasoned quips about multiculturalism (it appears to be the case that economists and scientists don’t work at universities, they’re racists and sexists, or they don’t ask intelligent questions) serve as a springboard for his more ambitious sociological project; according to him, multiculturalism inhibits understanding of the sorts of human events–such as terrorism–that should concern the inquisitive mind. That’s a bold claim–one which, as far as we can tell, he does nothing to establish. But the unarged assertion is becoming standard repertory.

Such excursions into grand theory raise more troubling questions. The attentive reader will not swallow the strawman (and just incoherent) description of multiculturalism of these two pieces–few I think would affirm the extreme moral relativism implicit in Brooks’s and Barone’s pieces. If anything, if notions are to blame, then the culprit of recent terrorism on British soil is that all too fancy notion of freedom of speech. But in the end, the attentive reader will wonder why Brooks and Barone have taken to such broad sociological categories to explain the homicidal actions of individuals. There is a word for such hasty cultural and racial generalizations, but it’s not coming to mind.

Will on Frist’s stem cell flip flop

We can’t be all negative all of the time. Sometimes praise should be given where it is due. Today, suprisingly, George Will takes on those on the extreme right who would challenge what he takes to be Bill Frist’s eminently reasonable and (as it turns out) scarcely modified position on stem cell research. According to Will,

many thoughtful people fear that the House-passed legislation puts the nation’s foot on a slippery slope leading to such a commodification of life.

This is not a thoughtful way to argue, as Will correctly points out:

Life, however, is lived on a slippery slope: Taxation could become confiscation; police could become gestapos. But the benefits from taxation and police make us willing to wager that our judgment can stop slides down dangerous slopes.

Good points all of them. We might add that the slippery slope is not some kind of physical or logical law; it’s a fallacious form of argument, an error in reasoning, and therefore a form of deception.

Unfortunately, Will cannot sustain this positive momentum; he is quick to return to battle the straw men that populate the imaginary cohorts of his argumentative opposition. In the first place, he cannot help himself from quoting a doctored version of a John Edwards quote about stem cell research under a Kerry presidency. Will says,

It is carelessly said, and hence widely believed, that in 2001 President Bush halted ongoing stem cell research — “banned” it — thereby denying suffering Americans imminent medical marvels. Remember John Edwards’s fantasy that “when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”

First, probably few people believed that. Second, John Edwards never said that. What he said was this:

Christopher Reeve just passed away. And America just lost a great champion for this cause. Somebody who is a powerful voice for the need to do stem cell research and change the lives of people like him, who have gone through the tragedy. Well, if we can do the work that we can do in this country — the work we will do when John Kerry is president — people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk. Get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.

Which is more or less what Bill Frist is saying. In the second place, Will takes issue with those who would question the motives of either Frist or Bush on the matter of stem cells (or for any question of deeply held beliefs).

The minor disagreement between Bush and Frist refutes the crackpot realism of those who cannot fathom the fact that people in public life often do what they do because they think it is right. Both Bush and Frist have thought seriously about this subject and come to mildly divergent conclusions. But neither conclusion crosses the scarlet line of supporting the creation of embryos to be mere sources of cells. And neither conclusion is the result of the sort of slapdash thinking that exaggerates the differences between them and explains those differences in terms of banal political calculations.

Will is certainly correct to point out that one should critique an opponent’s views on their merits, not on the motivations for them. But Will should also know–and he relished the Kerry flip-flop talk as much as the next conservative–that politicians do very little by accident (isn’t that what their media advisors are for?); so people are rightly skeptical. Besides, even though he is returning to his original position on the matter, Frist has stopped supporting the President’s position of stem cell research (he even apprised the President of this fact in a phone call before the change became public). It makes perfect sense then to ask that, if the facts surrounding the President’s policy have not changed, why has Frist stopped supporting it (or why has he returned to his original position)? In the end Will’s insistence on the principle of charity–on considering the stated justifications for someone’s position–for such thoughtful people as *Bush and Frist* (but not, mind you, for academics) raises another more important question: how do we decide when to apply, as Will has here, the principle of charity? I suggest we do so all of the time.