Slippery slope

I found myself thinking a lot recently about slippery slope arguments. Maybe it is the political climate of each day bringing developments in politics that would have seemed unlikely just days  ago (No link here, anything linked would surely seem normal tomorrow…..). Maybe it is just the quiet and green atmosphere of my new home lets thoughts flow more freely. Or maybe, they just seem to be everywhere these days. I have found, however, what people say about them often misses a crucial point – slippery slopes are inherently political.

By Robert F. W. Whitlock from Olympia, Washington (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Robert F. W. Whitlock from Olympia, Washington (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

How is that? Well, in philosophy the “slippery slope argument” is part of the thinking on logics and reasoning. The term refers to an argument, which reasons that A follows from B, and C follows from B, and D follows from C and that, therefore, if D is not desirable, one should not let A happen. This is often cited as an instance of a logical fallacy. And that makes sense, if the causal connections between the different elements are not sound. If, for example, B follows from A only sometimes and E could also result, then it is by now means certain, that D would happen if A happened. The slippery slope ios not so slippery after all. Euthanasia is often mentioned as a case in point – if we allow people to end their lives, what is to stop us from terminating lives that have been deemed unfit by society. Recent debates have, however, pointed out how slippery slope arguments might be relevant and sound after all. Eugene Volokh, for example, examined how one decision taken can alter the environment of the next decision in a way that makes a certain outcome much more likely than it would otherwise have been.

Indeed, slippery slope seems inherently plausible, and while not all arguments may hold up to scrutiny, there is decisions, that lead down slippery slopes. It is, in part a psychological effect, known as the Franklin effect: When we have acted along a certain trajectory – in the case of the Franklin effect ‘kindness’ – we are more likely to continue along this path, such as to avoid calling into question our earlier decision. Partly, slippery slopes are created by changes in the decision environment, caused by the earlier decision, material changes, if you want.

Arguing about the reality and plausibility of slippery slope arguments misses one crucial point of the argument: At each new stage, a decision has to be made. That decision may be more probably or not, it may be a causal effect of the previous decision, but no-one argues in earnest, that there is no decision involved. Otherwise, D would just follow from A, no steps necessary. The cautious will focus on the difficulty of making other decisions then the expected ones down a slippery slope and emphasize the difficulty of changing course. The confident will insist, that all decisions taken are independent and free, and that we should only ever look at the one decision before us. Both are wrong, of course. For the cautious: If there is a decision, it could always be different, or there would be nothing to decide. And for the confident: of course, no decision is independent entirely from the decisions that were taken before and it is worth considering, how the world will have changed once the next decision down the line has to be taken.

I find it interesting, that many issues that are considered typical of this kind of argument, like, euthanasia, abortion, freedom of speech, are inherently value laden. That is not an accident, but maybe discussing these problems obscures more than it clarifies. As a parent, I know quite a few less laden slippery slopes. Like bedtime. If I let my kids go to bed late today, won’t I be obligated to let them go late tomorrow? if I don’t, will I not be inconsistent in my parenting, eroding rules altogether? It has happened to parents before and – wooosh – all rules went out the window and you are screwed. However, there is a parenting device called the “exception” that allows you to let go of the rules and return to them later. The “exception” works only, if you can define the circumstances which makes this exceptional – “It is New Year’s Eve.” (Tomorrow is not New Year’s Eve), “There is now school tomorrow.” (Schoolnights are still the rule!) etc.

The example is not value laden so much and therefore lacks many of the things that make slippery slope arguments so difficult. But, I believe, it shows two things. Firstly, even when you created a general rule, you must still be aware of the conditions of its applicability. In the case of assisted suicide, for example, the rule cannot be so general as to say anyone should be helped to kill themselves OR anyone with that disease should kill themselves. The conditions of assisted suicide are an essential part of the rule. Therefore, in each instance, the applicability of the rules must remain debatable. [e.g. Is this an instance where the bedtime rule applies?]. Secondly, application or not application of the rule is a decision to be made that does not call the rule itself into question. This allows you to debate the applicability of the rule, but not the rule itself. Essentially, this means, that in slippery slope situations, the existence of a rule does not unburden you from the need to make a decision. the rule simply gives guidance on how to do that (or not to do that). Always calling the rule into question leads down some slippery slope (potentially). Debating the rules of applicability in a particular instance may, however, be the only way we can make any reasonable progress at all. In other words, if we are ready to accept, that we will have to discuss repeatedly if an instance is covered by decision A, we can make decision B a choice (not entirely free, but a choice nonetheless).

It is equally dangerous to consider slippery slope arguments a logical fallacy as it is to avoid decisions because – somewhere down a slope – a decision may have adverse effects. This is why, in my view, “slippery slope” comes up, when stakes are high and values are questioned. This is when we are most acutely and often emotionally aware of the political nature of the decision. How we act, will matter down the road and we can already see that. It doesn’t help to confidently deny the dangers or cautiously avoid the decision. What this kinds of arguments need is an awareness of the dangers and a willingness to commit to changing course if things go wrong.

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