Slippery Slope Definition
The slippery slope is a specific form of logical fallacy. It is also known as the domino fallacy, camel’s nose, thin edge of the wedge, and absurd extrapolation. Essentially, the idea is that a relatively minor action will inevitably lead to major consequences. Often, these consequences are ludicrous from a logical standpoint. In logical form, this can be represented by stating that if A happens, then it will inevitably lead to Z. However, on the path from A to Z, from a single minor action to a major consequence, there are many other steps, each of which involves its own level of probability, and each of which must occur for A to lead to Z.
The key to understanding the slippery slope is to recognize that between one action and the endpoint are numerous intervening decisions, steps, or events. Because of this, the first step does not inevitably lead to the final situation. In fact, there is often a very low probability that the initial action will lead to the final event as described. In addition, the final event is usually an unintended and undesirable consequence.
Another way of describing the slippery slope is as a continuum fallacy. Essentially, the argument assumes a direct correlation between the minor action and major consequence, ignoring any possibility of a middle ground between them. However, between the initial action and the final effect lays a chain of related events. The strength of the argument depends upon the degree to which the movement from each step to the next is warranted. If a strong relation between each step and the following effect can be demonstrated, then a slippery slope argument may have some logical value. However, it is described as a fallacy because even when a strong relation is described, there is no guarantee that each step will follow the last.
Slippery Slope Examples
Examples of the slippery slope fallacy abound in the realm of political debate and discussions on policy. We might, for example, hear a candidate discussing drug policy. The argument might run as such: If we legalize marijuana, the next thing you know all drugs will be legal and the entire population will become junkies. Another popular example involves euthanasia. A candidate might argue against euthanasia, claiming that it will lead to widespread and wanton killing filling of patients by doctors. In each case, the initial decision, whether we are discussing legalization or euthanasia, does not directly lead to the final outcome as described. In fact, between each initial action and the proposed consequence is an entire chain of necessary steps, some more and some less likely, but none of them certain.
Another place where slippery slope arguments can often be found is in the realm of moral philosophy. For example, it might be argued that if we condone contact between mother and child, the next thing we know, incest will be a widespread phenomenon. Though this is a clearly absurd example, it is one which has been used historically by Sextus Empiricus, an ancient philosopher. However, the form of his argument was slightly different. He claimed that incest was not immoral, on the grounds that “touching your mother’s big toe with your little finger is not immoral, and all the rest differs only by degree.” An interesting thing to note in this case is that the same slippery slope argument, framed slightly differently, was used to argue in one case against the contact between mother and child and in the other for immorality. Though this is not specifically an inherent aspect of the slippery slope argument, it does highlight the importance of the frame of an argument.
The examples in politics and moral philosophy are abstract and far-reaching. However, there are plenty of examples of the slippery slope argument that can be found much closer to home. We might hear the argument that children should not be allowed to make any choices, because if they do, next they will choose whether or not they want to go to school or obey their parents in any way. Once again, this makes the unwarranted assumption that a choice in one area will lead to absolutely no reasonable guidance in any area of the child’s life. And, as absurd as it may seem, this sort of argument is not at all uncommon with regard to child raising.
For a final example, let’s consider economic policy. This is an area which dovetails both politics and moral philosophy, but deserves recognition as an area in its own right. You may hear the argument that welfare should be abolished, since it will inevitably lead to laziness and a lack of productivity. The argument may continue to the effect that if a nation continues to provide welfare, then all people within the nation will become degenerate bums living off the government dollar. Whether or not welfare is a desirable policy, it’s evident that this argument involves a slippery slope fallacy. There is no guarantee that the initial action – a government policy of providing welfare – will inevitably lead to a nation of degenerates.
Slippery Slope Event versus Slippery Slope Argument
One important distinction is the difference between a slippery slope even and a slippery slope argument. The slippery slope event is an extension of causal reasoning through a chain of events that may or not be warranted. If this event occurs, then this next step will occur, and so on until the final effect. The slippery slope event is not specifically used as a form of argument, but rather as a form of reasoning. However, it shares the same logical fallacy. This fallacy is that there is no guarantee that each event described will lead to the next. Furthermore, both the slippery slope event and the slippery slope argument share the tendency to describe one or two steps and then jump a series of logical steps to describe a remote end consequence.
The slippery slope argument, on the other hand, is a persuasive statement, most often used in the negative form, used to link a specific decision or action to a remote consequence. In the negative, the slippery slope argument asserts that we should not do this, because it will inevitably lead to that. This same argument can be used in the positive, encouraging a particular action because it will inevitably lead to a desired consequence, though this usage is less common. In either case, the chain of logical reasoning has skipped several steps and ascribed certainty where only probability exists.
Types of Slippery Slope Argument
There are a number of ways to classify slippery slope arguments, and different writers have classified these categories in different ways. Two broad classes used by some writers are the causal and judgmental slippery slope. The causal slippery slope is used in many of the examples above. This is a chain of reasoning from one event to another remote event. It is causal in terms of the fact that one thing that occurs leads, through a chain of additional events, to a final event.
The judgmental slippery slope argument can be further subdivided into two further classes: the conceptual and decisional slippery slope argument. Conceptual slippery slopes deal with judgments. So, for example, we might hear that if one behavior is acceptable, then this next is, and so on until we are accepting completely heinous or reprehensible situations. The quote above offered by Sextus Empiricus regarding incest is an example of a conceptual slippery slope argument in that it involves judgments and proceeds from a minor action to an unintended and ludicrous outcome. The intention of this argument is to encourage the same judgment for the minor action as for the exaggerated final consequence.
The decisional slippery slope argument is similar, in that it involves judgment. However, this judgment is discussed in terms of what we decide to do. And fortunately, there is a classic example of this argument that nearly everyone has heard at some point in their lives. “You did it because your friends were doing it? If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off too?” Though posed as a question, this still assumes a direct line between one decision and another. Framed as a direct argument, the statement might go as follows: If you’ll skip school with your friends, then you’ll jump off a bridge with your friends as well. The initial decision might be relatively small or more serious, however, the final outcome of jumping off a bridge overlooks several levels of decision that might intervene between the initial action and the proposed final outcome.
In essence, the slippery slope argument can be characterized by certain defining features. However, these have been articulated in different forms by different theorists. All theorists have agreed that these arguments involve an initial proposition, acceptable on the surface. This is thought to either lead to another event, or to set off a mechanism or process. The movement from initial event to final is portrayed as unstoppable or inevitable. Finally, in the case of the negative argument, the final outcome is portrayed as dangerous or undesirable. Since this final outcome is undesirable, the initial proposal is then rejected.
The key to countering a slippery slope argument is to focus on the causal chain. Most often, only the first few steps – at most – will be mentioned before drawing a remote final conclusion. The causal chain itself is based in probability. In some cases, the probability for each link in the chain to lead to the next is high. If so, then this is an example of the non-fallacious form of slippery slope argument. It can be a form of rational heuristic which, though not logically guaranteed, is still helpful in making quick decisions about which actions will lead to which consequences. However, just like all heuristics, it is prone to unwarranted assumptions. So, in evaluating slippery slope arguments, first clarify the full chain of events leading from the initial proposal to the outcome, and then examine the probability linking each step in the causal chain.