Monday 14 March 2011

A note on the 'slippery slope' argument


It is often claimed that if we enforce some policy or allow some behavior; then it will not stop there but further policies and behaviours in that direction will be enforced or allowed until some undesirable end point is reached.

i.e. Once we step onto a slippery slope, we will slide to the bottom.

When does this apply, and when does it not?


It does not apply when there is a qualitative distinction which prevents further sliding.

Nepotism, or favouring family over strangers, is not the first step on a slippery slope to favouring everybody exept oneself - nepotism gets weaker (and other incentives get stronger) with reducing degrees of relatedness.

(Favouring strangers over family is a slippery slope.)

Eating animals for food is not a slippery slope on the path to eating people for food.

(Moral vegetarianism is a slippery slope.)


But there are real slippery slopes, and these occur when there is a violation of a qualitative distinction; because once the qualitative distinction is violated then there are only gradual, incremental, quantitative non-distinctions preventing descent of the slippery slope.

There are many examples from the past decades and few centuries in relation to leftism/ progressive/ Liberal politics.

When a qualitative distinction between men and women is denied, then there is a slippery slope. 

When the qualitative superiority and sanctity of heterosexual sex and marriage is denied, there is a slippery slope.

And so on.


The point is that it is relatively predictable; we pretty much know in advance when one is stepping onto a slippery slope, and when one is not.

When one is violating a natural taboo, or a religious taboo; or violating natural law or revelation, then a slippery slope has been stepped onto.

No matter how small the step - once onto the slope, the slide downward will begin (slowed only by the inertia of persons and society).



The Crow said...

A fine point of clarity :)
You are right: we do know when we step on a slippery slope. And to be absolutely sure we know it, there swiftly follows a proviso that if we do notice, then we are bigots, to be defamed and punished.
It swiftly becomes a survival skill to, at first, not appear to notice anything. And then to actually not notice anything.
I notice this, in people, every day...

Bruce Charlton said...


One reason why we step-onto so many slippery slopes is the inverse of 'Charlton's Law' that things can only get better in the long-term at the cost of getting worse in the short-term

(which is why these particular long-term beneficial changes have not *already* been implemented).

The inverse is that almost all changes which do harm in the long-term start-out by yielding (mostly) benefits in the short-term

(which is why these particular changes are implemented).

HofJude said...

Excellent - there is a story I read somewhere, but cannot find now, about GEM Anscombe suggesting, at an early 1950s Oxford cocktail party, to a certifiably great-and-good couple - the Warnocks? - that removing all restrictions to contraception, apart from her own RC objections, would inevitably lead to making abortion seem acceptable? They reacted with horror at the idea - how insane to think that this would happen.
The same sort of people told me I was silly ten years ago when I said that one of the most important objections to giving gay relationships the legal status of marriage was that there then could be no objection to legalizing polygamy and polyandry. "What nonsense!" I was told - that's just a slippery-slope argument.

Bruce Charlton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Charlton said...

@SS - Indeed: as you probably know, polygamy is now apparently legally recognized in the UK

B322 said...

One reason I like your blog:

You pick topics I would post on if I had the time. (A year ago, I'd have said, "You pick topics I would post on if I had the discipline.")

I debate with myself, silently, about the "slippery slope" concept all the time when I'm bored. With my job, that is quite often!