Minority Report and the Normative Use of Slippery Slope Arguments

September 15, 2004 | 33 comments
By

Some of my co-bloggers are big fans of the slippery slope. I’m a skeptic. I’m not suggesting that it is not possible to, in a descriptive way, construct some sort of progression between events that makes some sense. (I have separate doubts about descriptive use of slippery-slope arguments, particularly with the problem of cherry-picking). But my biggest concern with slippery slope arguments are when they are employed normatively: “We shouldn’t do X, because that might lead to Y, and then Z.” Or the ever-popular framing: “Wow, so-and-so suggests we do X. What’s next, Y?” And thus are proponents of some position X called to task for positions Y and Z, which they have never advocated. Meanwhile, self-appointed “pre-cogs” roam the political landscape, charging their opponents with all manner of future offenses. And of course, such charges are as inherently subjective and unprovable as any of the pre-crime charges in Philip K. Dick’s famous story, The Minority Report. This doesn’t strike me as an intellectually honest endeavor. Thus my opposition to the use of normative slippery slope arguments.

And if that doesn’t convince you, remember that use of slippery slope arguments will lead you directly to a life of public intoxication, claim-jumping, dereliction of duty, and champerty.

33 Responses to Minority Report and the Normative Use of Slippery Slope Arguments

  1. danithew on September 15, 2004 at 11:58 am

    Alas, the dreaded champerty rears its ugly head again. :)

  2. Kaimi on September 15, 2004 at 12:00 pm

    I put it in just for you, danithew. Well, and Nate too, since he’s Mr. Bankruptcy. (At least academically — one hopes he’s not Mr. Personal Bankruptcy, or Mr. Moral Bankruptcy).

    See also the discussion of champerty at http://www.timesandseasons.org/wp/index.php?p=1054

  3. Nathan Tolman on September 15, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    Perhaps I am crazy, but should we not think of the results of actions before we take them? Most of the “slippery slope” arguments do not make the same kind of jump you make in your tung-in-cheek comment.

  4. lyle on September 15, 2004 at 12:12 pm

    Kaimi: Sounds good to me. Frankly, Champerty laws should have been repealed long long ago…

    :)

  5. Kaimi on September 15, 2004 at 12:16 pm

    Nathan,

    The problem is that normative slippery-slope assumes future actions (is it impossible to believe that some people simply want the position they’ve stated, nothing more?), and assumes a straight-line progression and crescendo. I don’t like either of these assumptions.

    What happens when you apply these assumptions? Well, here’s a hypothetical conversation between Matt Evans (“ME”) and Mr. Slippery Slope (“MSS”):

    MSS: So, Matt, you’ve recently stated that you like playing geosense. Is that true?
    ME: Sure. I’m pretty good at it, too.
    MSS: Over here at Mr. Slippery Slope productions, we’re always interested in the question, “what’s next?” So let’s figure out our slope. You’re interested in geosense . . . I’ll bet you played Pac-Man as a kid, didn’t you?
    ME: In fact, I did.
    MSS: Aha! The slope goes Pac-Man -> Geosense. Let’s move on to our future consequences of this slope. After all, it’s not possible that Matt, after progressing from Pac-Man to geosense, will simply _stop_ there. No, he will move on to bigger and badder video games, surely as the night follows the day. Matt, does it concern you at all that you’re on a slope leading directly to violent video game playing and video strip poker?
    ME: What? I just want to play geosense!
    MSS: A likely story. Ladies and gentlemen, Matt Evans, innocent geosense player or future video-strip-poker addict? You decide.

  6. danithew on September 15, 2004 at 12:31 pm

    Kaimi, that slippery slope leads down even farther into yet riskier behaviors, like playing “Hunt the Wumpus”

    http://www.taylor.org/~patrick/wumpus/

  7. Geoff B on September 15, 2004 at 12:39 pm

    Kaimi, you are of course correct that slippery slope arguments don’t always work. I always think of the “domino theory,” which was used to justify the Vietnam war. While is is true that in some cases one Communist state did spread communism to its neighbors (from China to Vietnam to Cambodia to Laos), it is also true that the historical situation changed, and we are no longer worried about Vietnam and China spreading their versions of communism. But people in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were correct in warning about this trend in the 1960s and 1970s and wondering if they were next.

    The point is not to compare the two theories but instead to say that sometimes a theory is bourne out — and sometimes historical circumstances destroy the theory. As you know much better than I, judicial judgements are based on precedent. If a precedent is twisted to create a new “right,” then what other new “rights” will be created based on that same precedent? This is a perfectly valid question to ask, and the history of legal decisions will support me on that. However, it is also true that historical circumstances can change and other forces can work to overcome any attempt to distort a legal precedent.

    If SSM becomes legal everywhere, will the changing definition of marriage stop simply at giving the right of one person to marry another? Maybe. Maybe we are all pollyannas to be concerned about adult men marrying 10-year-old boys and three women marrying a man. But by changing the definition of marriage, you are opening a box of chocolates, and to quote that great scholar Forrest Gump, “you never know what you’re going to get.”

    I don’t want to turn this into the inevitable SSM debate, but it appears you are responding partly to that issue.

  8. Kristine on September 15, 2004 at 12:46 pm

    “three women marrying a man”

    The horror, the horror! From there, you could have religious leaders marrying 38 women at a time…

  9. D. Fletcher on September 15, 2004 at 12:50 pm

    I’m certain this whole SSM mess comes from shortening the garments.

    :)

  10. Nathan Tolman on September 15, 2004 at 1:12 pm

    Kaimi,

    Lets move from theoretical arguments to actual ones people have made. In your opinion, is the following slippery slope logic:

    think whenever people want to argue that it’s ok to deny someone a right because they deem it harmful, then we need to look at how we would feel if the same thing happened to us. What if the day comes when people who are anti-religion tell us we can’t pray or congregate anymore? They provide is with lengthy lists of the evils religion has visited on the world – everything from the Crusades to 9/11. Laws are passed that make it illegal to hold Church meetings, or to pray with other people, even in the privacy of your own home. Suddenly, we’re the minority – we’re the immoral people for believing such foolish things that brings so much pain to the world. Should we get to have our rights taken away? Does our right to congregate or pray affect the rights of others?

    It seems the poster makes the argument that if we deny gay marriage, the Church will be shut down. If this is not an example of what you are talking about then please, give me an example posting the original quote.

    It seems that some slippery slope arguments derive from historical experience (the Domino Theory for example) and are not based on looking at the here and now exclusively. We should not through out the past when looking at the present, but we should also be measured in our use of the past as a base for arguments about the here and now.

  11. Jack on September 15, 2004 at 1:24 pm

    LOL!

    D. that’s hilarious!

    See, a conservative can laugh along with the left sometimes. :>)

    Here’s a little slippery slope: When I was in the fifth grade I learned that Benjamin Franklin sired an illegitimate child. In H.S. I learned that he sired around ten illegitimate children. In college the number was around 40, most of which he sired while U.S. ambassador to France.

  12. Jeremy on September 15, 2004 at 1:34 pm

    Whenever a metaphor becomes shopworn, it loses its comparative quality and simply becomes the default term for the thing it is meant to analogize. And therein, I think, can be found the real danger of overusing the “slippery slope” argument: by simply thinking of the term as a rhetorical device, we may recklessly forget the danger of actually slipping down actual slopes. With winter just around the corner, please keep this in mind.

  13. Silus Grok on September 15, 2004 at 1:54 pm

    Jack: just a quibble, but the children aren’t illegitimate, the siring was. So perhaps one ought to phrase it as “so and so illegitimately sired X children”.

  14. Aaron Brown on September 15, 2004 at 1:54 pm

    Unfortunately, I don’t have time to discuss this issue at length at the moment. However, let me just say that what would be more interesting, Kaimi, would be for you to respond to Eugene Volokh’s slippery slope piece in the HLR a couple years ago. I think Matt Evans provided the link in a recent prior thread.

    Suppose I’m concerned that support for Position A (not undesirable in itself) would lead us down a slippery slope to Position B (undesirable). It does no good for you to point out that Position A doesn’t logically entail Position B. The question of whether A could lead to B would depend on any number of factors, and there doesn’t need to be an indubitable logical chain for me to be justifiably concerned.

    You say:
    “And thus are proponents of some position X called to task for positions Y and Z, which they have never advocated.”

    But whether “they” have specifically “advocated” positions Y and Z isn’t necessarily the point. There are any number of mechanisms through which positions Y and Z may become more likely, as a result of the embrace of position X.

    And in some cases (I’ll now don my conspiracy theory hat), people are probably right to entertain suspicions as to what those who advocate Position X really intend with respect to Y and Z. (The gun registration debate is coming to mind here.)

    Sorry — no time to give this topic the attention I think it deserves. Somebody else can run with all this …

    Aaron B

  15. greenfrog on September 15, 2004 at 2:15 pm

    Except, possibly, for Adam’s pre-Eve period in the Garden of Eden, every action by a human has been — arguably — incremental to a prior action.

    IMO slippery slope arguments are only useful predictors of future behavior when there is really no acceptable distinction between the specific case and the future parade of horribles cases. If there isn’t a basis for a meaningful qualitative or quantitative distinction between the cases, we ought to want them to be decided the same way. That’s what abstractions of justice (and scriptural rejections of God respecting “persons”) are all about.

    I think that we get tangled up frequently in pseudo-slippery slope arguments that mistakenly engage in a kind of reverse ad hominem. Instead of critiquing an argument by attacking the individual making the argument, the slippery slope proponents sometimes assume that because their argument A is being rejected (regarding the base-case to which the slippery slope argument is offered as a counter), their argument B, which would counter the next case beyond the base case, will be rejected, too. If argument B is not completely derivative of argument A, then the slippery slope argument is either illogical, or it presumes that the opponents are simply going to disagree with argument B because it is offered by the same person offering argument A.

  16. Matt Evans on September 15, 2004 at 3:22 pm

    Kaimi,

    Volokh’s law review article is very long, but I recommend you read at least the introduction (it’s about 8 pages). Then let’s continue the discussion.

  17. john fowles on September 15, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    Kaimi, I’ll remember your aversion to slippery slopes if you ever jump on board with Matthew Brzenzinski and decry “the coming surveillance state” resulting from Homeland Security measures. If you criticize conservatives for identifying elements of a slippery slope predicted long ago as they now begin to unfold as predicted (which is what Matt was doing with his post on teaching gay and lesbian sex), then how will you argue that anything will lead to anything–that attacking Iraq will lead to more terror, that Bush getting reelected will result in losing more jobs, that overturning Roe v. Wade will raise the numbers of illegal abortions, etc.?

    When a conservative points to the legalization of gay marriage and then to the immediate gay agenda of teaching kids in school how to have sex with someone of the same gender, including pictures and discussion of sex toys, and then predicts some further developments that are likely to happen in the future along these lines, it is a valid approach to policymaking and analysis. We always need to predict the consequences of the actions we are taking right now. What seems invalid is not the identification of a likely slippery slope based on what is currently happening and what has happened before is the leftists trying to silence these concerns by merely shouting “slippery slope, end of discussion!” This is especially the case when the slippery slope is a favorite tool of leftists in criticizing conservative policy. The pet issues are different; the argumentation the same. Would you be equally critical of a slippery slope employed by a leftist to counter a conservative policy? I haven’t seen you do it yet during my time reading T&S.

  18. john fowles on September 15, 2004 at 4:11 pm

    I wrote What seems invalid is not the identification of a likely slippery slope based on what is currently happening and what has happened before is the leftists trying to silence these concerns by merely shouting “slippery slope, end of discussion!�

    That should have read: What seems invalid is not the identification of a likely slippery slope based on what is currently happening and what has happened before but rather the leftists trying to silence these concerns by merely shouting “slippery slope, end of discussion!�

  19. Kaimi on September 15, 2004 at 4:29 pm

    John,

    1. You write,

    If you criticize conservatives for identifying elements of a slippery slope predicted long ago as they now begin to unfold as predicted (which is what Matt was doing with his post on teaching gay and lesbian sex), then how will you argue that anything will lead to anything–that attacking Iraq will lead to more terror, that Bush getting reelected will result in losing more jobs, that overturning Roe v. Wade will raise the numbers of illegal abortions, etc.?

    That’s mostly unrelated to my argument. I’m arguing that normative slippery slope arguments are problematic. I’m not arguing that nothing ever causes anything.

    . . .Matthew Brzenzinski and decry “the coming surveillance state� resulting from Homeland Security measures.

    Now that’s a slippery slope. I’m a skeptic. I like the ACLU, but they cry “the sky is falling!” as much as any other political group.

    2. You write,

    Would you be equally critical of a slippery slope employed by a leftist to counter a conservative policy? I haven’t seen you do it yet during my time reading T&S.

    Probably because T & S is mostly devoid of inane left arguments. Not that such arguments don’t exist.

    I like to think of myself as a critic of bad arguments everywhere. I regularly oppose bad arguments, whether they are advanced by the right or the left. Probably my highest-profile criticism of a left argument was when I strongly critiqued an article that ran in The Nation claiming that most of the courts of appeals were controlled by the extreme right. See http://wenger.blogspot.com/2002_09_01_wenger_archive.html#82073231 for my argument (which was linked by a number of blogs, including Instapundit).

  20. Randy on September 15, 2004 at 4:32 pm

    John, surely you recognize that it is not only “leftists” that decry the overblown claims of slippery slope arguments. Right?

  21. john fowles on September 15, 2004 at 4:57 pm

    Randy, of course I do. It appears you have missed my point entirely, though. My point was more to the effect that the same leftists who will sneer at conservative slippery slope arguments in policy analysis will resort to their own slippery slopes when a conservative policy is at issue.

    On the issue of SSM, I still don’t see how Kaimi can dismiss Matt’s arguments out of hand as a slippery slope when what Matt is really doing is pointing out that the slippery slope traditionally predicted by conservatives in this issue is now coming to pass, step by step. The question is, what is the next step after the kids have all been taught not only that some people are gay, but also that it is good and healthy to be gay, how to have gay sex, (where to stick what), and what “sex toys” to use if you are not biologically endowed with something to stick anywhere.

    Kaimi maintains that once the frog senses the water is too hot, it can jump out. Just how is the frog going to do that with liberal judges on the Court? Once you have extended the penumbra to embrace yet more “rights” never possibly imagined by the founders, how can you then restrict the penumbra to place some of those newly acquired “rights” back on the outside?

    On a side note, Kaimi was upset that people resort to the frog in the water metaphor in the first place, since his amphibian expert stated that a frog will jump out when the water is turned up, if it can. My view, also echoed in the link Kaimi gave, is that it doesn’t matter what a real frog does; it is the imagery of the frog getting cooked and its general acceptance of a metaphor for this kind of thing that matters. Since it bothers you, though, let’s drop it and replace it instead with scriptural language of flaxen cords becoming eternal chains. What do you think of this doctrine, and how does it fit into your general rejection of slippery slope reasoning? It seems to me that it is a scriptural confirmation that slippery slopes really do exist (they are not just rhetorical devices); moreover, they are Satan’s main tool for getting control over the hearts of men. Matt’s example of Playboy was very strong evidence of this slippery slope and how it has played out to make hard-core porn widely accepted in our society while leaving Playboy behind because it is now too soft for our society’s appetites.

  22. Randy on September 15, 2004 at 5:16 pm

    John, I’m really not trying to pick a fight here. I did understand your broader point. Just seemed to me that you were asserting that this is a tactic employed with greater frequence by those on the left. As you seem to acknowledge, that simply is not true.

    Frankly, I’m not as averse as Kaimi to slippery slope arguments, provided they are well reasoned. I’ve not had the time to read Volokh’s law review article today, but I have read his arguments relating to SSM and slippery slope arguments on his blog and find them to be fairly compelling. I suspect his law review article tracks and expands upon these same arguments.

    I think you raise an interesting issue as to who it is that points out the deficiencies in so-call “conservative” or “liberal” arguments. Let’s be frank. As a general rule, “conservative” commenters on this site are slow to criticize the reasoning of “conservative” arguments, and “liberal” commenters are generally slow to criticize the reasoning of “liberal” arguments. I suppose one could say that we are all hypocrites. But really, I think we all just too busy to tear down poor arguments in support of positions we believe are right.

    Is your experience otherwise?

  23. Kaimi on September 15, 2004 at 5:20 pm

    John,

    You write,

    Once you have extended the penumbra to embrace yet more “rights� never possibly imagined by the founders, how can you then restrict the penumbra to place some of those newly acquired “rights� back on the outside?

    My reply: Ever hear of a case called Lochner?

    (For those who may not know the legal background, here’s the very short primer: Lochner, in 1905, held that workers have a due process right to work at any wage — i.e., it invalidated minimum wage laws as contrary to workers’ due process. Thirty years later, in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, the court overturned Lochner and repudiated its reasoning.)

    You write:

    Matt’s example of Playboy was very strong evidence of this slippery slope and how it has played out . . .

    I reply:

    I’m certainly no playboy-ologist (porn-ologist?) but that looks an awful lot like a statement that could be confusing causation with correlation. I don’t think that Playboy caused any sexual or social revolutions. That’s a lot of credit to give to a girly mag. It seems much more likely to me that sexual mores were moving, and that two data points (Playboy then, sexual media now) are just data points in that progression, not that Playboy enabled anything that is happening now.

    John:

    to make hard-core porn widely accepted in our society

    Reply: Um, accepted by who? Certainly not me. Or most people I work with. Or most people I know. And hell, I live in Babylon. I think porn is a sad phenomenon. I don’t think highly of people who use it or participate in it. Most everyone thinks the same. So who exactly is so “accepting” of hard-core porn?

    John:

    while leaving Playboy behind because it is now too soft for our society’s appetites.

    I’m not sure if this holds up as an empirical point (which is what you’re claiming). I’ve read articles that indicate that the most popular girly-type magazines for young adult men are Maxim and its clones. These are (I’m told) essentially Playboy, but with clothing. There’s no nudity in them (just a lot of skimpy swimsuits and whatnot), and they’re driving Playboy out of business.

  24. Ashleigh on September 15, 2004 at 5:30 pm

    Slippery Slope arguments (from the left and the right) have always struck me as the fall-back rhetorical tool of the weak. Intellectually lazy, often illogical and rarely compelling.

  25. john fowles on September 15, 2004 at 5:38 pm

    Um, accepted by who? Certainly not me. Or most people I work with. Or most people I know. And hell, I live in Babylon. I think porn is a sad phenomenon. I don’t think highly of people who use it or participate in it. Most everyone thinks the same. So who exactly is so “accepting� of hard-core porn?

    I’ve read statistics that seem to imply that a majority of men use porn. At least Cooper Anderson of CNN seems to think so. It was so obvious to him that everyone looks at porn that for him it was just a matter of who is honest about it.

    I do believe that there are a lot of people who are disgusted by porn and its exploitative industry. But I don’t agree that “most everyone” thinks that.

    As to Lochner, I think it is a bad example. Property rights are among the rights that the Founders envisioned in creating our Republic; rights to homosexuality, sodomy, and abortion are not. Thus, when Parrish overturned Lochner it can be seen as liberal activist judges engaging in social legislation from the bench in contravention of founding intent, rather than as a court properly executing its Article III responsibilities (see Federalist 78) and curtailing a penumbra that has embraced rights outside the purview of founding intent.

    Randy: I think that you make a good point. My experience has not been any different.

  26. john fowles on September 15, 2004 at 5:42 pm

    Ashleigh: what about the tactic of merely crying “slippery slope!” rather than addressing the substantive concerns found in those arguments. Most people that make slippery slope arguments are not being disingenuous (even leftists); rather, they are analyzing matters that genuinely concern them (at least that seems to be the case here at T&S–perhaps slippery slope arguments are in fact disingenuous if coming from the mouth of Teddy Kennedy or Trent Lott). When Matt genuinely and legitimately laments what is happening as a result of the legalization of SSM, which is more disingenuous: Matt’s concerns for his kids or Kaimi dismissing him out-of-hand because of what Kaimi perceives to be an unfounded slippery slope argument.

  27. Kaimi on September 15, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    John,

    I’m not convinced that reading statistics that a majority of men use porn (of an unspecified type), and one apparent CNN discussion about porn (again, of an unspecified type), support your original claim that “hard-core porn [is] widely accepted in our society.”

    How “accepted” must something to be to be “widely accepted”? I think that most porn use remains furtive, suggesting that it is _not_ widely accepted in society. And a number of other factors also suggest a lack of “wide acceptance”: Porn magazines remain behind paper-bag covers, porn-blocking is common in every workplace, viewing porn on the job will often get you fired, porn actors and actresses are not considered serious actors.

    And I think one has to ask whether any increase in porn viewing over the past ten years is due to availability rather than acceptance. My guess is that that is exactly the case. Internet porn, which is available to many more people than plain old magazine or movie-theater porn was, may have changed actual porn viewership in ways that “social acceptance” never could.

  28. Steve Evans on September 15, 2004 at 6:06 pm

    “Property rights are among the rights that the Founders envisioned in creating our Republic; rights to homosexuality, sodomy, and abortion are not.”

    Arguments as to founding intent have never been entirely convincing, in my book, for two major reasons: 1. we cannot be assured as to the intent of long-dead individuals, and 2. their viewpoints are irrelevant to a society that has long-since gone beyond their world. It has always seemed to me that those most in favor of exhuming the Founders for their arguments do so because they long for the moral conservatism of the Founders’ world. That’s a disingenuous appeal to original intent, IMHO.

  29. D. Fletcher on September 15, 2004 at 6:16 pm

    Just to take an alternative viewpoint from my normal one (for a moment only!), I do think porn is a perfect example of the slippery slope. Porn certainly runs the Internet. I’m just guessing (no actual facts at my fingertips) that most people look at porn because they can. If you build it, they will come. If porn were outlawed and somehow vanquished to massage parlors and movie balconies, many people wouldn’t bother to seek it out — it doesn’t really do that much for them. But because it’s readily available, right in their home where no one can see… it’s just hard for people to resist. Most people don’t go seeking terrible car accidents in order to “get a look.” But which of us can really resist slowing down to get a glimpse of the victims in a car wreck?

  30. Ashleigh on September 15, 2004 at 7:14 pm

    John,
    What I think is that is a loaded question, framed with a rather unfair characterization of Kaimi’s arguments.

  31. Matt Evans on September 15, 2004 at 8:14 pm

    From several of the comments made, it appears that almost everyone would benefit from reading the introduction to Volokh’s article on the slippery slope that was published last year in the Harvard Law Review.

    Kaimi,

    I wouldn’t be surprised if magazines like Maxim are the best selling, given that they’re sold in Albertsons, Target and RiteAid. Their business strategy is to be as sexual as possible (since that’s what the market wants) yet not cross the line (raise the temperature too high) so that grocery and convenience stores won’t carry them. Playboy’s mistake, as they see it, was becoming a lightning rod and inviting boycots against retailers that carried them. To my knowledge, the only major retailer to have dropped Maxim is Wal-Mart. And even though these magazines may be the best selling, they would still be small players in the multi-billion dollar porn industry, which now consists of many more mediums than print magazines.

  32. Jack on September 15, 2004 at 10:19 pm

    Silus: Yes you’re right. I’m not as sensitive as I should be sometimes.

  33. greenfrog on September 16, 2004 at 12:20 am

    Thank you, Matt, for the repetition. I finally did read the linked introduction. Interesting thought process — particularly the concept that the decision to accept A changes the likelihood of B being subsequently accepted. It is always worth remembering (to me, at least) that changed conditions lead to changed desires. Does believing that make me deterministic?