Tag Archives: Slippery slope fallacy

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.



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? 

Slipsliding away

Slippery slope style arguments tend to be fallacious.  In one sense, they suggest non-existent causal chains as reasons not to engage in some or other activity.  An example: If we allow gay marriage in California, then we will have to allow polyandry, polyzoology, poly-whatever-you-wish, because the door will have been opened, the foot will be in it, and the slope will be greased and increasing its degree of descent.  Downward, indeed, we will go if we allow gay marriage.  That of course is not so much an argument against gay marriage as it is an argument against the things that would follow gay marriage.  Perhaps it's an implicit admission that one has no argument at all against gay marriage.  This causal chain, of course, starts at straight marriage.  Seems like if we allow that, then we will have to allow marriage between to "straight" Christians, and then therefore etc., as they used to say.  This of course points to the other variety of slippery slope fallacy–the relevance variety.  Man-turtle marriage really isn't what one was talking about when one advocated gay marriage.  Man-turtle marriage is irrelevant.  It's not like man-man or woman-woman marriage at all.  In the first place, turtles can't contract.  So there's that.

Sometimes however slippery slopes are not fallacious.  No, these are not the slippery slope arguments that I use–because, as we all know, I can never be guilty of a fallacy.  Rather, these are slippery slopes that aren't causal, but rather analogical.  If we make a law, for instance, which benefits company A, call it, I don't know, GM, then, by analogy, we must also make a law which benefits company B, which finds itself in the same circumstances.  That's not really a slippery slope in the fallacious sense, as it's more of an argument by analogy anyway.

I make this point because I encountered this surprising instance of a non-fallacious argument in Michael Gerson's piece today.  Speaking of a government bailout of General Motors, he writes:

But wouldn't government intervention be a slippery slope? Why bail out GM and not Circuit City? Well, perhaps because the closing of Circuit City leaves an empty place at the mall, while the collapse of the American auto industry would leave entire regions of the country in crisis. It is the job of a president — on issues from military intervention to economic policy — to keep his footing on unavoidably slippery slopes.

Maybe there is also a kind of implicit false dichotomy here as well–one can either help everyone or no one.  There is no middle ground.  We cannot afford to help everyone.  So we must therefore help no one.  Or maybe perhaps there's a kind of fallacy of accident–the misapplied general rule: if the rule states we help companies who are in dire straits, then we must help all companies regardless, etc.  That's what the rule states, after all.

So Gerson is of course right that is not a slippery slope.  But he's wrong as to why.  The reason why it isn't is because not all slippery slopes are fallacious.  One sometimes hears complaints in the fallacy literature to the effect that some alleged fallacies are not fallacies at all.  My answer to that is a resounding "maybe" or "sometimes."  Sometimes they're not.  Sometimes they are.  When they are, they're fallacious.