How useful in social, moral and legal lawmaking are slippery slope arguments?

Slippery slope arguments are really about judging people before the results and indirect consequences of their action unfold.  They imply that if a person gets an inch in time it will become a mile.  There is no worry about how such judgementalism gets people in trouble.

A valid slippery slope problem happens when you make a law that does not really mean anything.  If you bring in a law or change a rule and end up with no clear place to draw the line control will eventually prove impossible and things will go too far. You need a principled boundary that cannot be crossed.   For example, if I define stealing and fraud too widely any law banning them starts to mean absolutely nothing.  You will have people in jail for making a mistake on an application for state financial support and bank robbers going free.  You may say that they are not robbers for they only did it to pay for the mother's cancer care.  Boundaries are not everything either.  Religion has boundaries but they only led to Catholic parents virtually letting priests rape their children and leaving it to secularists to do something about it.  The balance can be hard to strike.

That aside, slippery slope is a challenge to the common notion that the exception will prove the rule.  That notion is nonsense.  There can be no exception.  There are times the rule does not apply for it cannot.  That is not an exception but a different rule.  So if you give a an exception a will come back looking for another one and then b will be wondering if she or he could get an exception too.  An exception smashes and insults the rule.  "I want special treatment but I don't rid of the rule."  It is a licence for hypocrisy.  It is setting the rule on the road to collapse.  That is the logic.

The problem with slippery slope arguments is not that.  It is that human nature does not do what you pessimistically might think it will do. And your cynicism inspires people to start misbehaving and resorting to crime so the slippery slope is not the problem, you are.

The interesting things about slippery slopes is that a good action can be worse than a bad one in time.  If you know what Hitler is and save his life ... get the picture?

Perhaps instead of the slippery slope talk we need to be clear:

If you bring in a law or change a rule and end up with no clear place to draw the line control will eventually prove TO BE A CHALLENGE and things MAY go too far. You ARE ADVISED TO HAVE a principled boundary that cannot be crossed.

This is just reflecting how a slippery slope may not be that slippery after all. A particular law need not be the reason for the slope getting too steep and slippery. It can be the context. For example, a liberal abortion law can in theory be virtually unused if the culture is responsible and avoids unwanted conception in the first place. The problem is not the law but the kind of society there is.

Slippery slope concerns crop up nearly always in the following issues only: abortion, divorce, illegal drugs, same sex marriage and euthanasia. Insurance rules getting too stupid lead to a compensation culture and that is certainly what we have.

The Sorites Paradox helps with our thinking about the slippery slope. If you are a man and have no hairs on your head then you are bald. If one hair is implanted that does not mean you can say that you are not bald anymore. So if you keep adding hairs until there are thousands and thousands you cannot then say he is bald. So we don't know at what point he ceases to be bald. We cannot work out the number of hairs that determines that. You cannot firmly decide. But you don't need to. General is enough. Just work out what ENOUGH SENSIBLE people would broadly agree on. You cannot say, "As you cannot find the boundary between non-bald and bald there should be no limit determined." That is rubbish. It is still okay to draw a line regardless of how weak the foundation is for you need to draw it and that is that.

With abortion or assisted suicide law, the same problem happens. Where does the line go? With abortion moralising (religious or secular) that is again an issue. One thing is for sure, principles or facts cannot help you so draw it at the best possible place. It is not firm but it will have to suffice.

One topical slippery slope issue is deciding when you let the young person in your care access social media. Maybe 18? But you are aware that it can be as damaging then as 15. It depends on the person and how he or she responds to its presence and influence. Maybe 25? Maybe the person will end up as badly damaged as she or he would be if 18 was the chosen age. You lay down the boundary though you know you have probably not found the perfect place to lay it down.

One reason religion needs the extreme thinking behind slippery slope objections is that it allows and encourages society to reason, "There is a good number of good people in the religion so I respect it - ie fawn to its doctrine and give it members and money" when some members turn out to be dangerous in the name of faith and demonstrate how faith like a knife can lead to bad.  The religion knows that a good organisation should be wound down if certain evils are done in it and that the good people cannot be abused as an argument for letting it remain.  It does not apply the slippery slope to itself - fair is fair.

Slippery slope arguments can cancel each other. The person who kicks a dog will kick a child. The person who thinks you will kick a child because you kick a dog will kick you to teach you a lesson before you get the chance to kick a child.  See the point? 

A slippery slope argument is no good on its own. You need evidence that if x is done then you open a floodgate. For example, you could argue that if the unemployed get a payment from the state then soon nobody will work. That is an example of a slippery slope argument that is false. Most people still work. Most unemployed do not abuse the system. Some do and turn honest. Only a small number of chancers remain and they do not count.

Don't forget that the Bible sees true religion and especially Jesus as a protection against a world that is on a spiritual and moral downward spiral.  This is a dangerous implication against atheists in particular.  We are seen as part of the slope and are seen as putting more grease on it.

Slippery slope moral arguments assume that morality is about goals not rules.  They lead directly to things like Utilitarianism or Situation Ethics.  But such moralities are not moralities for if goals are all that matters then why not steal if you are better off?

Put the fence somewhere. That is all we can do.  Slippery slope arguments are typically just about scaremongering and the fear of relinquishing control over others and society.  They remain the chief weapon used by religious activists who won't let politics alone.


With a seeming slippery slope, you never know how far back you need to go to see where the slope started or where it got too slippery.  The fear of slippery slopes can make  you feel you should keep out of things and not make decisions. But not making decisions is deciding not to make them so what do you have now?  Another slippery slope!  Slippery slope scare mongers are really weaponising uncertainty to get you to avoid the slippery slopes they do not like or which they find politically inexpedient.

Linear results are rather uncommon.  One example of a true slippery slope is throwing out somebody's blood pressure meds.  It is clear what will probably happen.  But with other issues you have to go with what you believe.  You may fear that bringing in your divorce law will lead to a huge percentage of marriages being simply given up on.  Even if that happens it is very difficult to prove causality.  It is complex.  And if you don't bring in the law you may end up forcing people to pretend their marriages are marriages.  So either way you have worries.  So if the slippery slope is a logical fallacy it is not the first logical fallacy that human nature turned into some kind of alternative reality, some kind of simulated truth.


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