Tag Archives: Slippery Slope arguments

Slippery Slopism

Image result for statue graveyardWandering about twitter this morning I stumbled on a couple of links I thought I’d share here. The first is an article by Steven Nadler, a philosopher at Wisconsin, who argues in a contribution at Time that the one weird trick to solve America’s stupidity crisis is a basic course in critical thinking.

What is the solution to our creeping national stupidity? Learning how to gain more information from a variety of certifiably reliable sources is an important first step. But what the American public really needs are lessons in how to be rational, how to assess that information — distinguishing between real evidence and fake evidence — and end up believing only what one is justified in believing. We could use more lessons on what it means to be rational and how to be epistemologically responsible citizens who are familiar with the difference between a valid and invalid argument, and who know an unjustified belief when they see one.

No argument here.

The second link is a medium-long piece by Jay Nordlinger of National Review on the subject of Confederate monuments. Along the way to making the (to me, obvious) point that the Confederacy represented an unequivocal moral evil, Nordlinger went meta and made the following remark about slippery slope arguments:

William F. Buckley Jr. used to warn against “slippery-slopism,” as he called it. There were always people saying, If you ban Hustler magazine from the public library today, you will ban D. H. Lawrence tomorrow. Bill hated this kind of thinking. It was a kind of anti-thinking. People should make judgments, he said. People should exercise their powers of discrimination.

I, however, have always been soft on slippery-slope arguments. And I make them. But I also think Buckley had a point: People should not be excused from thinking.

If you dishonor John C. Calhoun, do you have to dishonor Thomas Jefferson?  If you take Calhoun’s name off a college within Yale University, do you have to raze the Jefferson Memorial? Do you have to change the name of our nation’s capital, because Washington owned slaves? Oh, come on.

This is a clumsily stated but not unreasonable point. The only thing surprising to me–and I’m willing to consider this a consequence of professional deformation–is the novelty with which the subject matter is presented: “hey, have you ever thought about slippery slopes?” Of course you have. (Or maybe you haven’t, if so, you should; that’s Nadler’s point).

The slippery slope is a bread-and-butter topic of any worthy critical reasoning course. Justly so. Sadly, as Buckley correctly suggests, people frequently abuse the term as well as the argument form (for abuse of terms see this post by Scott). They do so especially when the matter regards permitting or prohibiting something. If we prohibit x, then logic dictates we prohibit y, and then it will further require that we prohibit z. The chain itself of increasingly horrible consequences does the work of the argument. In the present case, should we remove the statues of Confederate soldiers, etc., then logic requires we remove the statues of other morally problematic figures (like George Washington)  then there will be no statues (or something).

Buckley’s point is that this energy-saving line of thought absolves you of addressing the question as to whether reasons apply the same way in the separate cases. The slope is actually slippery, though I wonder whether we should use this term (maybe another time for that claim), when the reasoning applies in the separate cases. In these cases, however, what you actually have is a parity of reasons argument. The same reasons that allow x also allow y. A somewhat recent example. When the Bush administration invited religions to collect federal money for charitable activity, Wiccans showed up (to the dismay of the Bush administration). A quick note on the slope here: I hardly think the Wiccans would consider themselves the bottom of any kind of slope.

Sadly, Nordlinger seems to obscure this distinction and fall exactly into the cognitive efficiency  problem Buckley identifies, only in his case rejects the possibility of a parity of reasons case out of hand. This is a point any (again worthy) critical thinking course ought to make–not all slippery slopes are fallacious. Fallacious slippery slopes is that you don’t do any real analytical work. The problem in rejecting parity of reasons arguments out of hand is to do the same thing.

Not the way to conduct reasonable political discourse

It is very hard to have an adult discussion about distributive justice when the very notion sends some people’s minds sliding down slippery slopes to Hitler and Stalin (see yesterday on the ad stalinem).  A recent exchange illustrates this point.  Last month, fellow Chicagoan Harold Pollack wrote a reply to Greg Mankiw’s defense of the 1 percent.  Pollack argued for some version of distributive justice.  This prompted the following comment from John Goodman, health care policy person:

In some ways this is all very surprising. After all, the 20th century was the century of collectivism. It was the century of communism, socialism, national socialism (fascism) and the welfare state. Each and every one of these isms was devoted to taking from some and giving to others. After all these years and all that misery you would think that someone, somewhere would have perfected an argument for forcible redistribution of income. And yet what we find today at the leftwing blogs is truly pitiful.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating. The left is intellectually bankrupt. It has been that way for almost a half century.

Sorry, but this is moronic and just a bit insulting, as Pollack himself notes in a comment on the post:

“In some ways this is all very surprising. After all, the 20th century was the century of collectivism. It was the century of communism, socialism, national socialism (fascism) and the welfare state. Each and every one of these isms was devoted to taking from some and giving to others. After all these years and all that misery you would think that someone, somewhere would have perfected an argument for forcible redistribution of income….”

Having grown up with refuseniks and the children of holocaust survivors victimized by the first three isms you mention, I find this crude paragraph especially insulting. Social democracies and liberal welfare states–whatever faults they may have–should not be likened to to criminal authoritarian regimes. That’s not the way to conduct reasonable political discourse. Harold Pollack

That bolded sentiment is exactly right.  Goodman, ever clueless, responds:

Harold makes a point that deserves a thoughtful response.

I do indeed see all the collectivist isms of the 20th century as forming a continuum. Some were more brutal than others in practice of course — a lot more brutal. But ideologically speaking, the differences among them are differences of degree, not of kind.

This is how people in the 20th century also saw things. Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler all believed they were more ideologically similar to each other than to classical liberalism. In fact for all three, the principal philosophical enemy was liberalism. This is also how Woodrow Wilson and other progressives thought. (See Jonah Goldberg’s lay history of the early 20th century progressives for a very readable summary.)

Also, this is the way they thought in the universities.

It’s a slippery slope, he insists (also, Jonah Goldberg, seriously?).  Pollack replies:

My last comment on this unfortunate thread. The distinction between the first three isms and the rest resides in institutions which respect political liberty, the rule of law, checks and balances, and other features of constitutional democracy. The U.S., Sweden, Britain, France, and year-2013 Germany have these institutions, laws, practices, and political norms. Nazi Germany, the USSR, and many other authoritarian regimes of the right and left did not.

That was nice of Pollack to try one more time, but Goodman’s entire approach is a textbook slippery slope to Communism and Hitler.  I don’t know if any more refutation is necessary.

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.

To all the h8trs

Some puzzling words in favor of "traditional" marriage:

It was not for nothing that societies for millenniums recognized marriage for its civilizing properties and stepped in to regulate them secularly. That's because marriage, among other things, seeks to protect the lives and rights of women and children in a historically patriarchal society.

This from the mouth of the Chicago Tribune's get-off-my-lawn conservative guy, Dennis Byrne.  This is in an argument against gay marriage–or rather, to use his words, in support of "traditional marriage."  Of course, for Byrne, "traditional marriage" is one-man-one-woman  leave-it-to-beaver marriage: not the real traditional marriage of the kind where the wife had very much unequal status.  That particular argument from tradition would appeal to very few. 

Anyway, so Byrne maintains that marriage civilizes.  But it civilzes only when it's one-man and a series perhaps of individual women (or vice versa: one woman and a series of individual men).  There seems to be no actual evidence for that claim, other than the fact that some form of contractual union has existed for a long time.  In the absence of such evidence, one must naturally rely on the slope:

The formulated response to this point is that marriage can continue to go on protecting those lives and rights whether or not gays and lesbians are legally included in the marriage contract.

But that's too simplistic. Cultural institutions like marriage can be fragile structures, bending to the crosswinds of changing public attitudes. Tamper with them too much, and they become diluted and ineffective in their purpose.

I believe people have rights to legally designate in contract law who can visit them in hospitals, who can be named as insurance beneficiaries and the raft of other considerations sought for gay and lesbian couples. Call the arrangement civil unions if you wish.

But that's not the same as defining any union a marriage.

My fear — based on secular, more than religious precepts — is that watering down marriage could eventually rob society of the stabilizing and other beneficial effects of an institution now relentlessly under attack. Perhaps this argument is too ethereal to be grasped or accepted in an age of radical individualism. But it's an argument that is understood by plenty of Americans willing to state it, although it puts them in danger of being painted as haters.

This argument achieves new heights of terribleness.  Byrne believes people have contractual rights except when they don't.  Marriage, one might recall, as far as the law is concerned is a type of civil contract (that's why Sea Captains can perform marriages).  People have a right to this with its responsibilities and benefits or they don't.  If they don't, some aspect of contract is closed to them.  Why don't they have those rights, according to Byrne?  The slippery slope.

Recall that Byrne has already argued that marriage has stabilizing, er civilizing effects.  Nowadays, more people want access to those effects (people who would not have accessed it before).  So this means, somehow in Byrne's world, that marriage is under attack.  And of coruse, the very fact that more people want to realize the benefits of civilization means the very end of civilization.  I mean, you can't get a good drink around here anymore.

Witches are made of wood

Someone asked Mao Tse Tung (forgive me if I get this anecdote wrong) what he thought of the French Revolution.  His reply: it's too early to tell.  That's taking the long view.  Now comes David Frum, former Bush Speechwriter guy, and transplanted Canadian conservative.  He writes in favor of same sex marriage–good for him–but he does so in a way that makes you want to shake your head.  You see, fourteen years ago he had predicted the decline of society in some kind of slippery slope type argument.  He has waited around to see if that would happen, and lo, it didn't. 

Washington (CNN) — I was a strong opponent of same-sex marriage. Fourteen years ago, Andrew Sullivan and I forcefully debated the issue at length online (at a time when online debate was a brand new thing).

Yet I find myself strangely untroubled by New York state's vote to authorize same-sex marriage — a vote that probably signals that most of "blue" states will follow within the next 10 years.

I don't think I'm alone in my reaction either. Most conservatives have reacted with calm — if not outright approval — to New York's dramatic decision.


The short answer is that the case against same-sex marriage has been tested against reality. The case has not passed its test.

Since 1997, same-sex marriage has evolved from talk to fact.

If people like me had been right, we should have seen the American family become radically more unstable over the subsequent decade and a half.

Instead — while American family stability has continued to deteriorate — it has deteriorated much more slowly than it did in the 1970s and 1980s before same-sex marriage was ever seriously thought of.

By the numbers, in fact, the 2000s were the least bad decade for American family stability since the fabled 1950s. And when you take a closer look at the American family, the facts have become even tougher for the anti-gay marriage position.

Middle-class families have become somewhat more stable than they used to be. For example: College-educated women who got married in the 1990s were much less likely to get divorced than equally educated women who got married in the 1970s.

What's new and different in the past 20 years is the collapse of the Hispanic immigrant family. First-generation Latino immigrants maintain traditional families: conservative values, low divorce rates, high fertility and — despite low incomes — mothers surprisingly often at home with the children.

But the second-generation Latino family looks very different. In the new country, old norms collapse. Nearly half of all children born to Hispanic mothers are now born out of wedlock.

Whatever is driving this negative trend, it seems more than implausible to connect it to same-sex marriage. How would it even work that a 15-year-old girl in Van Nuys, California, becomes more likely to have a baby because two men in Des Moines, Iowa, can marry?

Maybe somebody can believe the connection, but I cannot.

You mean you cannot believe that anymore, dingis.  Fourteen years it took him to realize that the crazy ass slippery slope arguments–gay marriage will lead to the death of Merica!–were crap.  Fourteen years.  

Besides, there remains the question of whether what contractual relationships two constenting adults engage in is any part of anyone's business but their own. 

UPDATE.  Maybe Frum ought to revise his view in light of Pat Robertson's recent claim.

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.