Many families take a trip to the ski slopes for Spring Break. The hope is for a good base of snow, lots of sun, and no injuries. When making arguments it is a good idea to hope for the same. We need a good base – no fallacies please. We need lots of sun – let’s shed light on how arguments fail. And, let’s avoid injuries – many have fallen prey to the conclusions of poorly made arguments.
Today we offer another installment in our ongoing series on logical fallacies. Greg Horton invites us to consider the ways we unwittingly, and sometimes intentionally, use the slippery slope when aiming to make an argument. (Here is an interview I did with Greg Horton.)
Of Goats and Gays, or How not to Slide Down the Slippery Slope
Growing up conservative Christian meant that our lives were bounded by fences created to keep us “safe and holy.” The fences typically concerned what we’d now call lifestyle issues: sex, drinking, smoking, drugs, etc. Where the Bible stopped with “do not be drunk,” our guardians would forge ahead, such that the fresh coat of paint on the fence read “don’t drink.”
Biblical interpretation issues aside, the enforcement of rules—especially extra-biblical ones—required a coordinated approach that would convince us that the fences were legitimate protectors of our lives, health, and holiness. Prong one of the approach was a legitimizing of the rule based loosely in Scripture. Prong two was threats of punishment like grounding or spanking. The third prong is the focus here, though, and it utilized lines you have heard so often that they have become a joke of sorts, and I suspect they transcend culture.
“If you go to that dance, you will end up drinking, and then someone will take advantage of you, and then you’ll end up pregnant, have to drop out of school, and ultimately prostitute yourself to make ends meet.” Sound familiar? In my house, my mother was the chief deliverer of jeremiads that were based on a fallacy called the slippery slope. It’s certain that fathers are the chief offenders in other families.
The slippery slope relies on projecting a negative—even catastrophic—event that follows a choice or an action. For the sake of rule enforcement, this is the means whereby we were taught to be scared of fence crossing. Step outside the protective enclosure, and a whole series of misfortunes awaits. In all fairness, it is quite possible that the outcome will be catastrophic, but it’s more probable that it won’t. Millions of kids drink beer without ever shooting black tar heroin into their eyeballs later in life.
Recently, the national debate over same-sex marriage generated a wealth of slippery slope arguments from cultural conservatives who saw the possibility of legalized same-sex marriage as a Rubicon of sorts. Among the worst I saw on Facebook and other platforms was one that would be funny if the authors did not actually believe it.
“If we let gays marry, then people will want to marry children or goats or toasters! What’s to stop that from happening?”
In what is clearly an externalizing of a metaphor best typified by the impossible-to-identify Dutch boy who saved his city by inserting his finger into a leaking dike, the cultural conservatives believe that the decision would burst the dam of “traditional marriage” and lead to a catastrophic destruction of the institution of marriage and the stability of our culture. Normally, the only thing that can be said of slippery slope arguments like this is “maybe, but there is simply no way to know” but the gays-and-goats trope offers an alternate way of dealing with slippery slopes.
When slippery slopes are projecting things that simply can’t be known, then the maybe response is the most honest—assuming we aren’t talking about probabilities. Once probabilities are considered, slippery slope arguments are seen to be what they are: an attempt at predicting the future. For the goats-and-gays argument, though, the slippery slope wanders into falsifiable material.
In answer to the “what’s to stop this from happening?” a simple solution is available: the law. Yes, the very same law that has been changed to make same-sex marriage legal, but in the case of same-sex marriage, the decision followed a well-respected trajectory—the granting of rights and privileges to adult citizens in good legal standing. Adults are allowed to enter into contracts, purchase property, inherit real property, vote, serve on juries, buy cigarettes, drink booze, and a whole host of other rights and privileges related to the fact that they are adult humans.
Goats do not have legal standing, cannot enter into contracts…you get the point. Neither, more importantly, may children. Nor toasters. Nor any other non-adult-human thing you can name. In a real sense, the goats-and-gays trope is both a slippery slope and a non sequitur (a conclusion that does not follow from the propositions or evidence). It may be that the legalization of same-sex marriage will have negative consequences for our culture—but I doubt it—but it’s more probable that it will not.
What we have with the introduction of the slippery slope argument here is an attempt to keep culture from doing what the cultural conservatives fear is outside the fence. Yet again, the fence is one of their own construction, and lacking a good non-religious argument that would buttress their demands that adult American citizens with a different sexual orientation not be afforded the same rights and privileges enjoyed by the larger culture, they resort to the same tactics used by my mother decades ago: be afraid, be very afraid.
More Posts in the Series