Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bad Argument Type #2: Slippery Slope Argument

Slippery slope is another argument type that doesn't always work. Of course sometimes it can but only in certain circumstances. It can work if it proposed like this: "X is wrong because of Y. And if X continues it will lead to more Y and possibly Z."

The slippery slope argument can also be easily misused. Often, the statement will imply that the current state of affairs is neutral, but if it continues, it will become immoral. Doing this avoids facing the problems of the current situation. The argument is rendered ineffective because the other side simply has to claim it will not progress that far. Since neither side has a crystal ball, the arguments turns to predictions. A safer model would be to show why what is currently happening is not good.

Take for example, the debate about homosexual marriage. Some have used the argument that if we allow same sex marriage, soon fathers and daughters will be marrying, or three people will marry, or people will marry their pets. While a case could possibly be made for these predictions, using such an argument actually ignores the current problems with same-sex marriage.

Implicitly, the person using the slippery slope argument is saying "gay marriage is ok, but when it starts becoming three people, then it will be wrong" even if that's not what they believe. An easy refutation to this argument is for the contrary side to claim that marriage among three individuals will not happen. Now a stalemate has occurred.

A better way to go about it is to argue for the negative effects of gay marriage on people and society. We are then arguing about actual things and not predictions.

Another area is euthanasia. People will say, they are killing babies in the womb, now they want to kill the elderly, soon we will be killing almost anyone we deem inferior. This argument can be effective in that it scares people into at least thinking about the issue of euthanasia. Perhaps it highlights logical consistency and where it would lead.

However, I believe ultimately it fails. It fails because again it is implied that killing the elderly is alright, but eventually it might lead to killing disabled people or any number of others, and at that point it becomes wrong. Again, the person using the slippery slope argument is not trying to imply this, but that's what comes across.

Ultimately it is better to argue for the current evil that is occurring (i.e. euthanasia). This is not a future prediction, but a current reality we must face.

Another general downfall to the slippery slope argument is that it constantly seeks a new starting point. It's almost a form of relativism. Those using it will concede a certain point and argue that the future might be worse. We use our current society and its values as a starting point and work our way from there. The problem with this is that there may be societal flaws which need to be addressed now. I think that's what has happened in a lot of people's moral reasoning.

For example, I was reading a newspaper article from the early 1960s which predicted that as more men gained access to pornography, there would be an increase in violence, especially sexual violence. Instead of focusing on the inherent evil of pornography, they focused on future effects that may arise with increasing use.

Another example is sexual morality. In the past, people would wait until marriage to engage in sexual actions. Eventually morality started to decline and the standards were lowered. Now it was considered appropriate to have sex with someone but only if the two were engaged or in a very serious relationship. Eventually the standard was lowered again to where people should engage in sexual activity but only if they have "protection". People now worry that children who are too young will be having sex in an "unsafe" way. The worry is not that they will have sex before marriage, or even that they will have sex outside a committed relationship, but only that they will not use "protection". We start talking about how bad things will get if this continues.

Instead of this, we should focus on what is morally acceptable in absolute terms, not in terms of prevailing opinion or in future worst case scenarios.

To conclude, while slippery slope arguments can serve as a wake-up call, good moral reasoning needs to be understood for what is currently happening.

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