The Law Of The Impossible-Necessary Slope


My friend Rod Dreher coined the Law of Merited Impossibility, which governs the discourse of elite opinion makers, and states that it’s impossible to believe that Christians should suffer from progressive cultural victories, and that when they do they’ll have it coming.

In the same spirit, and thanks to Rod again, I offer the clunkily named (I welcome better suggestions) Law of the Impossible-Necessary Slope, which goes something like this: when a conservative warns that reform A will lead via slippery slope to reform B, the progressive response will be that such a suggestion is outlandish and impossible; when reform B happens, the progressive line will be that not only is it necessary and just, but it is only the logical consequence of now-accepted reform A.

There are many examples of this, but one of the clearest is euthanasia. Rod:

Let’s face it, says the ghoulish Dr. Jean-Marie Vincent, a prominent Belgian professor of medicine, the number of doctor-facilitated euthanasias in Belgium each year is far above the official number, because doctors are deciding themselves that even though the patient is not suffering uncontrollable pain, it’s time for them to die. But the Belgian law must go further, says Dr. Vincent, speaking for his country’s professional society of intensive care doctors;

Doctors need the right to administer drugs to euthanize a patient whose “life quality has become too poor” — even if the patient has not consented. The statement signed by Dr. Vincent and the medical society says that doctors must have authorization in law to put patients to death who have not asked for euthanasia, and whose families may be opposed to it; though “full consideration of the wishes of the family” must be taken, the final decision must rest with the physician.

This of course comes on the heels of the signing of a euthanasia-for-children law. I am sure any euthanasia opponent who had suggested 15 years ago that legalizing euthanasia for the elderly would lead to euthanasia for children would have been decried as a crazed fear-monger.

Debates about euthanasia are often very difficult, because most euthanasia supporters come to this position after a painful personal experience of a loved one’s death, and reach their position out of a heartfelt sympathy. Abstract arguments about the sanctity or value of life are often very ineffective.

But the prudential argument is, it seems to me, unassailable: while it’s possible in theory to design a “death with dignity” (urgh) regime that does not lead to atrocious Nazi-like rampant murder, in practice it has always proved impossible.

But, of course, slippery slopes don’t exist, and any suggestion that they do is outrageous. Until the next step in the slope is taken, at which point it is necessary, just, proper, and inevitable.

Let us pray for victims and executioners, and for all of us sinners, who are responsible for the sins of the world.

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  • tom_ttac

    “While it’s possible in theory to design a “death with dignity” (urgh) regime that does not lead to atrocious Nazi-like rampant murder, in practice it has always proved impossible.”
    Except… that’s not true. There are several (at least eight) countries that have some form of euthanasia or assisted suicide currently, and it’s hyperbolic to the point of dishonesty to describe any of them as having “atrocious, Nazi-like rampant murder.” Even if you describe the situation in Belgium (the actual one on the ground, not the hypothetical proposal of one doctor) as such (which, I still argue, is a gross exaggeration), most of the countries or territories with assisted suicide have not expanded their laws to nearly that extent.

    So, yeah, you don’t actually have any datapoints on that conjecture, unless you somehow count the Nazis, which weren’t trying to do assisted suicide, but, you know, actual murder and genocide. Which I don’t think is a very good data point for this comparison.

    Also, even in the example you give, you and Rod note the opinion of one dude. Not legislation that has actually been carried out, nor even been introduced, nor the “progressive line” on the matter, just the opinion of one guy. And honestly, one can probably find one person who to agree with nearly any proposition you could imagine.

    And even if you accept that example, which I still think is a poor one, that is literally the only example you give at all for this general law you propose. Ignoring, of course, all the times when the slippery slope fallacy turned out to be a fallacy. You know, the people proclaiming that women getting the right to vote would lead to the collapse of society, or that the civil rights movement would lead to black people enslaving white people.

    Sometimes law in one direction do lead to more laws in a certain direction. Sometimes they don’t. You claim that there is some tendency for conservative slippery-slope-esque fears to come true, and propose that this is a good argument against laws when your other arguments fail, but I don’t think this is at all a universal, or even particularly common, occurrence, and have absolutely no criteria for discerning the poor predictions from the good ones.

    I can appreciate the idea of the “window of imaginable results” and how moving culture in one direction can make previously unthinkable things possible (the progression of civil rights for women and people of color is a great example of this), but not every worst-case scenario that opponents of these movements have is credible, and many didn’t come to pass. So as a general “law of this is why the slippery slope fallacy isn’t actually a fallacy,” I think this is pretty poor.

    edit: some typos.

    • Theodore Seeber

      Well, in Oregon at least. the most liberal abortion laws in the world led to euthanasia, so the other way works. We currently have about 3000 state sponsored abortions a year, and in the past five years, they’ve started in on the death panel in Oregon Health Plan deciding which treatments to pay for and which to give barbiturates to. One troubling new statistic- most of the “Death with Dignity” plan prescriptions used last year were written more than six months in advance and were thus technically illegal. And given that a whole new generation has found a fascination with designer people, I for one would not be surprised to see the return of the Eugenics Board, which we had in this state up until 1981, and the Death With Dignity Act gives them a nice new tool if they can just get a doctor to fake a diagnosis.

      “You know, the people proclaiming that women getting the right to vote would lead to the collapse of society, or that the civil rights movement would lead to black people enslaving white people.”

      Except, it seems to be. Women getting the right to vote led directly to no-fault divorce and abortion, which are causing the collapse of society. Affirmative action keeps majority populations from getting jobs and positions as students in colleges. It isn’t all as rosy as you point it out to be, and in some ways, these predictions were right on the money.

    • Frank McManus

      I was going to write the same thing, but you beat me to it! And you did it in far more detail and far more articulately that I would have done. Kudos.

      The only thing I’d add is that the attempt to rehabilitate the slippery slope fallacy in this post is typical of a certain mode of conservative thought. Fortunately our kindly blogger doesn’t seem to do it much. But the kind of thinking I’m talking about tries to make conservatives feel good about their prejudices by dressing them up in intellectual clothes — for example, by creating a ridiculous new Law. It’s attractive because it gives thoughtless conservatives permission to indulge their prejudices willy-nilly while hiding behind this new Law. (The gleeful comments in this thread already show how that works.) The notion that one must abide by the rules of evidence and logic to make plausible arguments for a given position goes out the window.

      (PS People on the left have their own versions of this nonsense, of course, but I know I won’t have trouble convincing anyone here of that fact.)

      • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

        Anybody who says “the slippery slope fallacy” immediately self-disqualifies from intelligent discourse.

        • Frank McManus

          Why? Would you permit me to say instead “fallacious slippery slope arguments”?

          • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

            It is simply not true that all slippery slope arguments are fallacious. Some of them are. But not all. This is self-evident.

    • BTP

      It strikes me that you have a very short timeline in which you expect to see significant cultural change, if you are to accept such arguments as valid.

      The flip side of your argument points out the problem with it: consider cases where societies really have adopted the most shocking policies and note that so many things remained essentially fine. Gosh, it seems we really can murder a million Tutsis and, yet, find our families remain quite harmonious. The Hutu ones, anyhow. We really can murder trainloads of Jews and still have a society that cares for animals.

      Yet societies that explode into this sort of violence surely were sick to begin with, if not obviously. There must be some disease that failed to protect them from their worst impulses; I wonder what it was. And, if we could find it, would people like you still think slippery slopes were fallacies?

    • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      I assume you’re misinformed.

      Belgium: we have the heretofore noted euthanasia-for-children law; and while this is not a law, the doctor quoted is not just some random dude, but the head of intensive care at a prominent hospital and former president of the intensive care society of Belgium. Surely you’re aware of the concept of Overton Window.



      In France, the Health Minister recently wrote in support of a doctor who–by all accounts–actively poisoned many terminal patients in violation of the law.

      In Oregon, the most-cited reasons for recoursing to assisted suicide are “losing autonomy” and “being a burden” rather than terminal illness and suffering which was the original stated intent of the law.

      In Switzerland, “weariness of life” is now cited as a reason for assisted suicide.

      • tom_ttac

        I’m not misinformed concerning most of those points. I just disagree with your assessment.

        I am aware that the person quoted is a prominent doctor. He is just one prominent doctor. Again, it is not nearly a sign of the new “progressive line” or any such thing.

        I still maintain that the statement that “While it’s possible in theory to design a “death with dignity” (urgh)
        regime that does not lead to atrocious Nazi-like rampant murder, in
        practice it has always proved impossible.” is still so far from the truth as to be a very big misrepresentation of the world. Clearly, we disagree on the wisdom and morality of assisted suicide laws. Still, I maintain that characterizing places like Oregon, Britain, the Netherlands, etc as Nazi-like murder regimes is hyperbolic to the point of dishonesty.

        I am aware of the concept of Overton Window, I even referenced it my discussion of the Civil Right Movement. My problem is with your argument is that you imply that conservatives have the ability to predict how far a slipper-slope type effect will go to the extent that one can construct a good argument based on these fears. But, as you said in a reply upthread, some slippery slope type effects come to pass, some don’t. The inability to accurately discern between the two outcomes should cast doubt on the strength of any given slippery-slope style of argument.

        So yeah, sometimes slippery-slope style things happen, but they don’t always, and it is impossible to be sure which will happen. If people who strongly criticize slippery-slope arguments are “immediately self-disqualifying from intelligent discourse” because sometimes slippery slope things occur, then I don’t see how you can claim to make a “law of impossible-necessary slope” would bring similar criticism to you, given that sometimes the slippery-slope style effects don’t happen. It seems like hubris.

        My objections aren’t merely academic. Ted Seeber believes that women getting the vote lead to bad things like no-fault divorce and abortion (note: I don’t actually believe his characterization of the linear and inevitable progression from the women’s vote to either of those things is accurate, nor do I believe in the actual badness of either of those things), and also the civil rights movement lead to, in his characterization, injustice for white people I suppose. By your argument, if one bought into the slippery-slope style logic in those cases, then that would be a good argument for denying women the right to vote and opposing the civil rights movement. I trust that this isn’t what you intend, but I think it is a problem with your argument: the slippery-slope style arguments are, at their heart, an argument to stop legislation not on the basis of its actual effects or rightness, but on the basis of potential, future legislation that may (or may not!) come into consideration as a result.

        One step in any direction, even if one has a lot of trust in an Overton Window, does not ensure that society will take all the steps one fears in that direction. And I think a lot of the conservative fears that sometimes crop up (legalization of pedophilia, Nazi-like murder regimes) are so many steps past the actual legislation at hand (gay marriage, assisted suicide), that listing those fears as the reason why we need to stop the overton window HERE is a really bad argument. There are many other steps one can stop at.

        Edited to add: Also, to be very clear, the whole “gay marriage -> legal pedophilia” argument is not so much an overton window thing, but a gross misunderstanding of the actual situation: I suppose when one has the opinion that the gay marriage thing is “traditional morality vs. everything goes” it might seem to make sense, but I think a more accurate view is “traditional beliefs about marriage vs consenting adult living their lives in ways that makes them happy.” Also, there is a lot of anti-gay animus that drives the whole pedophilia scare thing that is very unfortunate. Just wanted to be clear that I don’t actually accept the framing of that overton window at all. Though it does bring up another point: the actual framing of an Overton Window (i.e. what axis is actually an accurate view of the situation) is not always clear, and indeed, the one-dimensional nature of the Overton Window concept (it’s either going in this way or that way) might be a weakness of that theory in general. Or perhaps, the theory can account for more multi-dimensional things, but it’s not often talked about like that in popular discourse and is more a flaw with how the concept is popularly used.

  • mochalite

    Welcome to the Monkey House! Your ethical suicide parlor awaits you (Kurt
    Vonnegut.) LI-NS is a highly useful new theory, and it has so many other applications… of course, sexual reform (liberation) won’t lead to a rape culture and the need to reform (feminize) men; of course, delivering temporary welfare absent work requirements won’t lead to generational dependency and the need for permanent welfare; of course, quantitative easing won’t interfere with creative destruction and necessitate more government intervention in free markets.

    How about calling it the Humpty Dumpty? “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither
    more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

    • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry


  • Brian Niemeier

    John C. Wright has a name for the phenomenon you’re describing: the Unreality Principle.

    • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry


  • Leslie Wolfgang

    As with abortion, it won’t take many lawsuits by disgruntled family members before the “option” for doctors to offer death-inducing prescriptions, becomes an obligation.

  • JohnMcG

    I’m not sure this is always a malicious force. It would have been difficult to imagine integrated schools before slavery was ended, but the logic of ending slavery (ultimately) implied that separate but “equal” accommodations were not sufficient.

    It seems there are a couple of ways slippery slope, or “camel’s nose” arguments are deployed.

    1. If we allow this innovation, this will dismantle a principle that is the only thing standing in the way of this other innovation that most people agree is terrible. If we allow same sex marriage, we will have to allow inter-family marriages, or polygamy, etc. This is typically countered with “How dare you compare the nice people who would benefit from Innovation A to the types of people who want Innovation B?!??,” and this has been sufficient to carry the day.

    2. If we allow this innovation, then their advocates will be emboldened and they will push for their true agenda which is extreme. If we restrict abortions at 20 weeks, pro-lifers will push to ban all abortions, so best to show them who’s boss now.

    • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      Well, sure, there are some good slippery slopes. And the effect works in both directions. The example of slavery is a good one. Pro-slavery advocates often warned that abolishing slavery would lead to miscegenation, and most anti-slavery advocates responded by saying that this was irresponsible scaremongering. But *of course* abolishing slavery eventually led to interracial marriages, and this has been all to the good.

      The Law of the Impossible-Necessary Slope is descriptive, not normative.

  • BTP

    Actually, it’s not possible in theory, either.