The slippery slope fallacy is another of those logical mistakes to which so many people fall prey. I’m sure you recognize it; it’s the idea that doing one thing will inevitably lead to doing something worse. It’s a common argument deployed for things like drug use, in which a drug like marijuana is labeled a “gateway drug” because it allegedly opens the door to much more dangerous and addictive substances. In other words, once you start using marijuana you’ve started down the slippery slope towards becoming a full-blown cocaine/meth/heroin/oxycontin, etc. addict. The problem with the slippery slope fallacy, paradoxically, is that it’s true often enough that people start to become convinced that it’s true for everything. Certainly there are drug addicts who started with marijuana and ended up with heroin; the problem is the assumption that the worst will always happen. It becomes a form of confirmation bias. People remember the cases where one decision led to another, and then another… and the next thing you know, the world as we know it has come to an end!
The slippery slope fallacy is used all the time in public and political discourse. Recent events illustrate well that the slippery slope is a common bludgeon for changing people’s positions or illustrating their stance. So, gay marriage inevitably leads to multiple marriage (polygamy), then marriage between children and adults, then marriage between people and animals, and so on. It reminds me of Peter Venkman, Bill Murray’s character in Ghostbusters: “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!” (Of course, the interesting thing about this particular argument is that polygamy is widely practiced in many cultures, and girls and boys who might be considered children by Western standards are considered to be of marriageable age as early as 13 in some parts of the world… but that doesn’t mean that this is going to be accepted in all cultures, or even that it should be. Personally, I have no problem whatsoever with polygamy, although I wouldn’t want it for myself).
We see a similar argument occurring in the gun control debate: if gun control laws are tightened, then only criminals will have guns, and law-abiding citizens will have to live in fear for their property, safety, and their lives. The converse is that if gun laws are relaxed, gun crimes and gun deaths in general will skyrocket as people go around randomly shooting each other. Obviously I’m exaggerating to make a point, but this is the natural consequence of the slippery slope argument.
One place where I fall prey to the slippery slope myself is in my concerns over how digital and wireless technology is allowing more and more intrusion into our private lives. I harbor dark fears that eventually, no one will be able to do anything without it being recorded somewhere, somehow. I cringe every time I read a story about the new ways technology is intruding into our lives, in many cases without our knowledge. A company in the UK has developed public trash cans that can track smart phone signals and display ads based on the personal habits of passers-by. This sort of thing keeps me awake at night and gets me started down the slippery slope. I think my overall concerns about privacy and government/corporate overreach are well founded; but do these concerns necessarily lead to a completely totalitarian, Orwellian world? Perhaps, but simply arguing that one thing inevitably leads to another is not enough.
Like all the things I write about, there are always grey areas. Sometimes a slippery slope concern ends up being justified, but even if it is, slippery slope arguments are still fallacious. People always sense danger when they feel their worldview is being threatened, and some people see threats everywhere. Even if we feel justified in listening to our fears about the slope, we are still obligated to do the actual work of using facts and logic to determine what the potential outcomes may be. Fear, as compelling as it may be, is not rational, and neither is the slippery slope.