Sunday, November 2, 2014

The slippery slope argument

I had to take a philosophy class at college when I went back to get my teaching certificate.  Technically it was an "educational philosophy" class but we did spend quite a bit of time discussing and debating philosophy in general.  In that regard it was quite entertaining, partially because I wasn't, at age 35, intimidated by college professors.  One of the issues that came up was the "slippery slope" argument.  This argument, for those of you not familiar, basically says that if you allow one thing, it will lead to another, which will lead to another, etc.  The name of the argument comes from the physical situation with which we are all familiar, that when you start to slide down an icy hill, you pick up speed and have no way to slow or stop your slide.

Our professor completely rejected the slippery slope argument and provided us with some interesting articles to that effect.  I, on the other hand, argued from a real world observational perspective that we can see the results of this all around us in today's society.  Now, one can argue that the slope is a good thing or that it is a bad thing, depending on the issue and on one's perspective, but that it a value judgment rather than an argument for or against the existence of the slippery slope.

So let's talk about a couple issues that I find interesting in how people view this argument.

The first is gay marriage.  (For the record, I have a step-son who is openly gay.  He came out to us when he was nineteen or so.  I have no issue with his sexuality.  I don't care what he does or who he sleeps with.  Not my problem, not my issue.  I am, however, opposed to government sanction of gay marriage.  My rationale, which I have addressed here before, is that gay marriage is not a fight for equal rights but rather the redefinition of a term that has had the same meaning for all of human history.  Gays are fighting to redefine a word so that they can reap the benefits of government interference in what should be a private matter.  I have stated before that my solution would be to eliminate marriage as a government program and make it a matter or religious and contractual law.  Problem solved.)

Opponents of gay marriage brought up one argument during the debate, however, where they suggested that the redefinition of marriage to include any two people would result in a "slippery slope" whereby it would become more difficult to prohibit marriage between any other group of people, the main example being polygamy.  They were shouted down by the gay marriage proponents, who mocked the idea and pointed out that no one was even talking about legalizing polygamy.  Apparently the slippery slope argument had no validity in the eyes of gay marriage proponents.  Fair enough.  Except that at least one federal judge has recently ruled against polygamy laws.  The right to privacy found in the Constitution by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v Texas makes prosecution of polygamists somewhat problematic.

Which brings us to the Hobby Lobby decision.  Owners of a large company with deeply religious convictions (the owners, not the company) do not wish to provide abortion drugs to their employees. This is important.  You were probably led to believe that the owners did not wish to provide contraception, but in fact it was only the abortifacient drugs that were in dispute in this case.  Commentators on the opposing side let it be known that it was only a short step from the Hobby Lobby case to companies refusing to provide any contraception coverage at all to contraception being made illegal.  Now we can assume that some of the hysteria is just the regular politicization of issues that comes with today's political climate.  If left wing commentators can convince voters who are somewhat ignorant of the facts that the opposing political side is planning on making contraception illegal, it makes it easier for their side to win.

However, the blatant use of the "slippery slope" argument, when this argument had previously been explicitly rejected by those same commentators is what struck me.  Either the argument is valid or it is not.  It does not become a valid philosophical argument based on your support or opposition to the specific  issue at hand.  This is a disingenuous tactic in debate and should be discouraged, whether on or opposed to your "side" of the issue.

Note: Just heard on a podcast that I was listening to that Salon and Slate, the shock troops of the left, are pushing for legitimization of polygamy and other "alternative" marriage arrangements.  Haven't confirmed this but it would be a significant about face based on the protestations of the gay marriage crowd during previous debates, as well as a notable example in support of my observations.  Not particularly relevant to a discussion on the merits of slippery slope arguments but evidence of either hypocrisy or sloppy intellectual thinking.

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