Schlagwort-Archiv: politics

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.

Is this news or….?

Nigel Farage - By Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Greece CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Nigel Farage – By Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Greece CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This morning I got a link to an article claiming that Nigel Farage (of all people) had applied for German citizenship following this summers Brexit vote. That he would do such a thing sounds somewhat absurd, seeing he has been fighting for Brexit for more than 20 years, and it has since been denied. But, my first reaction was not to think of it as absurd, it was “Is that news or satire?”. I genuinely could not tell, even after reading the article. This is happening to me more and more often lately, something utterly strange turns out to be true.Political developments have become unpredictable and I would not dream of saying something is impossible just because it sounds unbelievable, stupid or outright mad anymore. Brexit and the Columbians vote on their peace treaty are really just prominent examples. I have taken to watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, because somehow he manages to still clarify fact from fiction…. Seriously, watching satire to get the news?

Something called “fact-free politics” or “post-truth politics” has achieved a notoriety that has earned it its very own wikipedia article. Essentially the phenomenon means a kind of politics that appeals first and foremost to the emotions of people. Post-truth politics is said to be derived from communication habits developed through social media interaction and features prominently in the US Presidential Campaign. The trouble, of course, is, that just because it is factually wrong, it does not mean a political statement won’t be taken serious, I always have to consider every statement as true until…. Well, until when?

Discourse theory has taught us, that it matters what is said. And that things can become true by being said. Not because they are facts but because if everyone acts like they were true, the world will be like they were true. Discourse theory, however, never sufficiently explored how and why statements that are wrong in that they do not follow discursive rules (like appealing to certain speaker positions or relating to established discursive patterns) can gain traction. They shouldn’t be believed so easily.

I fear there is some deeper development at play here. The dawn of modernity came, when people realized that the world was not as is but made through the actions of people. It began with a select few but this sense has since extended to everyone, culminating in the belief, that everybody is the maker of their own fortune and one’s achievements are purely the result of effort and ability. Through these efforts we have created a world full of stuff that people just thirty years ago might have considered pure magic. My kids don’t flinch at the sight of a 3D-printer, they just shrug. Anything is possible. In a world, created through our own words and actions, down to its material substance, in which ever new developments make impossible things possible, how is one to distinguish the plausible from the implausible? Anything could be true. If we make it so.

That, however, is not the solution to the aforementioned morning problem, but the beginning. The trouble lies in the “If we make it so.” We used to be constrained by lack of technology, communication, knowledge. Like small children who simply lack the skills to light a candle or reach the knifes. They can do little permanent harm. It is when we learn to do more that we must learn to decide, what to do and when to do it. It seems to me, that the world has arrived at the stage, where we must learn to transition from trying everything and be amazed at our ability to just do it to deciding what it is we want to do. And this may even be less about reasserting ethics. I think about it like coming of age: the purpose of the teenage years is not (just) to learn to do the right thing, but to learn to decide who you want to be.  Like teenagers we drift, we don’t want to be tied down by choices. That is why we keep believing anything is possible and avoid the tough questions. fact free politics suggests to us that there is no limits, not even facts. We want it to be so, it is so.

We have the means to make a world to our liking. We have the means to destroy it. The whole spectrum of opportunity is infront of us. But not forever. It seems like we can ignore the facts of climate change, world poverty, war, technological change and no consequence results. Sometimes the facts come back to haunt us, sometimes they don’t. There is one fact, however, that we all must learn personally at some point and that the world will feel, too: Not making a choice does not leave all options open. It just makes the fading of opportunities follow a path you have not chosen. Of course, we could keep drifting and just see where it takes us. But I had much rather, we make decisions. We ask ourselves, who we want to be and then try to be that. Sure, we can fail. But it beats the feeling of realizing that we could have a built a great world but somehow missed the opportunity….And let’s be honest -  in an age of fact-free, why not dream?

Redefining ourselves in the European crises

Chart Syrian RefugessMiraculously, only now, in 2015, have the millions of people leaving their homes South and East of Europe found their way across the European borders. One might also say fought, as nothing about those trips seems to be easy. These people have made a reality what the artist activists of the Centre for Political Beauty prophetically enacted as the First Fall of the European Wall only a year ago. In an unceasing trickle Syrians, Africans, people from the Balkan countries and many others emerge from the many holes in that European wall. The European fortress must always have had those holes. But only now does the pressure outside of that comfortable refuge we call Europe start to push people through them. These refugees (for lack of a better word) arrive in a Europe fundamentally torn between its own perceived needs and conflicts, a fear of the other and the distinct feeling that neither goes well with the image we would like to keep of ourselves. People arrive and they are welcomed, fed, made to wait, left alone, registered, celebrated, hated, put up in good/unsuitable/no housing, kept from moving on, made to move on, kept waiting, processed – in any and no particular order, usually more than once. Things are happening much to fast for much political strategy to be behind this. It’s everybody following their guts in a Europe not prepared for that kind of situation. And apparently everybody is pretty confused – hence the confused reaction.
Everything about this “refugee crisis” is complicated: the sheer numbers, the speed, the logistics, the priorities, the politics, the long-term implications. Unfortunately, everything about Europe was pretty complicated before. Remember the almost forgotten Greek debt crisis? Unlike the – also starving and suffering Greeks, Syrian families do not stay in Greece or Italy or Hungary but go on and on, as far away from the cause of their pain as seemed possible. These crises share many features. Resolving them requires funds, cooperation and the courage to ask and answer difficult questions. In other words,their resolution needs everyone to be ready to share, talk to people that may or not be easy to talk to, give up on many little things they would like to insist upon (like “proper” papers and procedures for everything), think beyond their own immediate needs, find creative solutions and commit to a commonly shared goal yet to be determined. I am only naming the basic requirements here….

2015 on a European Motorway

2015 on a European Motorway

Look at the immediate challenges faced in light of continuous flows of people from the Middle East (a mess we are by no means innocent in). Closing borders even for a brief time seems wrong but so does having people walk across the borders along motorways, strand in small towns and sleep on the floor in huge. Closing the borders between European neighbours feels like a step back into a time, we all thought behind us. Transporting thousands of people by train and bus is all nice and well but the logistics of moving so many people are incredibly difficult to manage, especially if we just dump them at the next border. There is a reason that kind of thing is usually only done with months of planning ahead – not hours. And when people arrive housing, food and clothing don’t materialize simply in the right places. Needs and distribution need to be matched and it is not even possible to say who is responsible (No, it is not enough to say the state…). By an unexpected show of collective maturity (or divine intervention) these immediate tasks have been solved incredibly well. People volunteer, share and cooperate in unprecedented ways. Thousands around the Europe go out of their way to make the best of a challenging situation. It is a miracle! Yet, the whole system completely fails: Noone is ready, many people are left without help at all and if anyone has any idea where to go from here, they are hiding it pretty well. It is desaster!
Those warning, that we cannot keep on taking on more refugees have a point – the long term challenges are immense and I am far from convinced that we will master them. But the people reminding us of our moral duty not to let people die at our borders if there is any way we can prevent it couldn’t be more right. There is so many right things, that it is impossible to decide what is the right thing to do. I have reconciled myself to the fact that we will have to muddle through this crisis just as Europe muddled through the last (Remember? Back when we Europeans thought a little Greek debt was a problem to fall apart over…). We will fail many times over, fail us and fail those seeking refuge. Yet, muddling through and failing has brought the European Union so far, maybe it will get us further still? Aren’t all  these question in the end administrative and can best be answered by people who have lots of numbers at hand, who can systematically optimize the outcome employing a healthy combination of fair rules and good judgement?
Administrating the problem is not exactly straight forward, though. Limiting asylum appers as the one way in which we can gain back control in an uncontrollable situation. In light of the immediate challenges which so vividly illustrate the impossibility of the tasks ahead, many conservative voices see this as a way out. Isn’t Afghanistan mostly safe these days? Liberal voices on the other hand refuse to consider the gravity of the changes we are about to face with hundreds of thousands of people coming to live with us for a while – or forever. They consider the practical problems because these problems seem so, well, practical, solvable if just we find the right procedures and muster the necessary resources. Critics of this perspective are right in saying that this is essentially driven by the fear to face the severity of the problems to be solved. Both perspectives go hand in hand and can, indeed and quite surprisingly, be held by one person at the same time. These perspectives are little more than coping mechanisms. But not for coping with the refugee crisis. We turn in circles around these problems in order to avoid the really tough questions. What kind of Europe do we want to be? Do we dare to fall back into nationalistic patterns or leap for something else? Are we ready to do what it takes to live up to our ideals and dreams? And most importantly, are we ready to take the risk of debating these questions even if one possible outcome is that the whole European project falls apart?
All too often we are too scared to discuss the underlying issues because they relate to our innermost beliefs, our European idea. We are mostly happy with this “European Idea” being a generally undefined Something. Indeed, we would not really know what to do if we became explicitly aware of any fundamental disagreements – about who we want to be as Europeans, about what the “European idea” means and what we are ready to do for it. Many would argue such general things have nothing to do with the crises at hand. Answering these questions is not a solution to the refugees’ situation. It may not even help in making the right choices between different policy options. Yet, when I look closer at the different suggestions voiced in the debate around the refugees coming to Europe over the last weeks, I see how it is those questions on what we think Europe should be – remaining not merely unanswered but mostly not even raised – fuelling disagreements. The debate between proponents of limiting rights to asylum more strictly and those wanting to find the most liberal solution only superficially concerns numbers, logistical problems and the limits of our capacity. It is rather an expression of a fundamental uncertainty about solidarity in Europe and where we want the European project to go. Sceptics are driven by fear of the unknown and the sheer unpredictability of what will come out of this. Putting up the founding ideas of any society, those ideas that form the basis of all administrative bickering is tricky business. Smart political theorists advice against it. But barring a belief in political authority based on tradition, money or God, engaging with those fundamental questions is the strategy of choice. Maybe, this latest crisis pushes us over the edge and forces the issue into public consciousness. Maybe we take babysteps by creating an empirical reality of welcoming and sharing which will reassure us of our ability to indeed live up to ideals of solidarity and a fair and open society. Maybe we exchange bold opinions and argue fiercely. Either way, what we do now matters, we are redefining who we are and who we will be with every little thing we say and do. We need to be bold and brave and aware of the significance of these times.