Slippery Slope Redux

John Frame, at TGC’s blog, is clipped to say these important things about the almost always fallacious use of the slippery slope. First, he defines it well:

A true and valid reductio must be distinguished from its fallacious imitators, one of which is the ‘slippery slope’ argument. A slippery slope argument goes like this.

‘If you take position A, you run the risk of taking position B;

position B is wrong,

therefore A is also wrong.’

Then he says what it really is all about — fear:

Thus the slippery slope argument appeals to fear—to our fear of taking undue risks and to our fear of being linked with people (such as liberals), disapproved of in our circles, lest we incur guilt by association.

Then he contends most historical examples are precisely not slippery slopes:

In general, they prove nothing.

Usually, they do not rest on a sufficient statistical sample to establish even probable conclusions.

And they ignore the complexities of historical causation.

He all but said Wayne Grudem et all ought to stop. I will.

The best example of slippery slope in the Bible is the Judaizing Christians’ accusations against the apostle Paul’s life of freedom in the Spirit. Scared the hooie out of them. So they jumped to fear-based conclusions.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://theepiscopalian.blogspot.com/ William W. Birch

    Excellent! And this I particularly appreciate: “Thus the slippery slope argument appeals to fear — to our fear of taking undue risks and to our fear of being linked with people (such as liberals), disapproved of in our circles, lest we incur guilt by association.”

    I’ll give a brief example. I very much liked and appreciated Rob Bell’s latest book, What We Talk about . . ., but I’ve seen some conservatives over-react to (and even misrepresent) some of the material. I admit, though, that I hesitated to publicly approve the book because of the risk factor (not that I am anybody special that it should actually matter).

    I may have not articulated describing God in some of the ways as did Rob, but that does not mean I should throw him under a bus. I’m not too keen on Brian McLaren, but is every word that drips from his mouth wrong ipso facto? Not from where I’m seated.

  • Dan Reid

    I’m glad to see Frame laying this out. Someone ought to compile examples showing how this often does not play out in history as folks think it will. There’s also a slippery slope into orthodoxy, which has been the downfall of many an unorthodox person. (I’m thinking of a local Orthodox priest who had this experience.) The horror of it all!

  • Aaron Fletcher

    I disagree with that particular framing of the Slippery Slope admonition.

    That logic says that if you drive a car, you run the risk of breaking the speed limit. Breaking the speed limit is wrong; therefore, driving a car is wrong.

    We’re always weighing risks against rewards. I frame the argument this way:
    Position B is wrong.
    If position A is a watered-down version of position B, or…
    If taking position A makes you more likely to accept position B,
    Is position A worth the risk?

  • Douglas pierce

    Your risk is the same as fear he is talking about. The problem with slippery slope is that it presumes A will inevitably lead to B. I.e everyone who drives will become a speedier. Every drink leads to alcaholism. The flaw is in thinking B is inevitable.

  • http://twitter.com/geoffholsclaw Geoff Holsclaw (@geoffholsclaw)

    This post is on the slipperly-slope of making sense.
    I propose we reject it in place of reactionary paranoia! :-)

  • MatthewS

    I was told that where there is a valid slippery slope argument there is will be another stronger argument, so use that one instead.

    I do think we need to use wisdom in considering unintended consequences of any given course of action. I’ve seen people fallaciously cry “slippery slope fallacy” when someone was in fact trying to apply good wisdom to foreseeing likely consequences.

  • Andrew

    People who use slippery slope analogies in defense of a certain position are pretty much conceding that they don’t have the logical upper hand for their own backing of that position.

  • Joe Canner

    I think one’s view of slippery slope arguments has a lot to do with how one interprets data from the past: are things getting worse, better, or staying the same? Those that think that things are always getting worse are more likely to assume that things will continue get worse: A led to B in the past therefore B is going to lead to C in the future.

    Of course, we’ve had this discussion a number of times here, and it is apparent that how you interpret the past depends on what data you look at. It’s fairly clear to me that some things have improved and other things have gotten worse.

    As a statistician I am also very cautious about inferring that A caused B simply because A came before B (e.g., ditching prayer in public schools caused the sexual revolution, etc.). In science there is a higher standard for causality than that, and there should be in history as well.

  • Dan

    I disagree with the way Frame “frames” the question. Anyone who has been on the face of a glacier that extends to a mountain cliff understands a slippery slope. It is not a question of whether everyone sets foot on the glacier falls to his death. It is a question of whether there is something to hang on to if one starts to slide. So, Slippery slope arguments actually go something like this:
    1. Position A, if held consistently, logically leads to positions B, C and D in succession.
    2. If there is no logical barrier between A and D, someone who makes a move from position A, perhaps many, will inevitably fall to position D.
    3. So the question is what exactly prevents the unsuspecting from falling once they begin to slide from position A?

    To say slippery slope arguments are bogus, one has to completely ignore the history of the abortion debate. Pro-abortion folks often suggested the slippery slope arguments were naive and alarmist. But look where we are.

    Pro-life advocates said shortly after Roe v Wade in 1973 that the logical conclusion to abortion would be infanticide and euthanasia. Stating, as position A, that an unborn fetus whose heart rate is measureable within 3-4 weeks of conception and whose brain function can be measured at 7-8 weeks is not a “person” necessarily allows that other beings similarly described could also be classified as non-persons and killed. The nebulous notion of “personhood” lacked sufficient definition to be a barrier to infanticide and euthanasia, hence momentum on the slope could not easily be slowed.

    Within a few short years we had cases of non-terminally ill patients being denied food and water as the Euthanasia movement gained momentum. By the Clinton administration, late term abortions that involved removing a viable child feet first from the uterus until the skull was exposed and then inserting a sharp object into the back of the skull were being defended as consistent with the constitutional right to abortion.

    Now we have the grisly realities of the Gosnell case where fetuses are fully delivered and either left to die in toilets or terminated by the severing of the spinal cord or some other measure necessary to stop the “non-person” from behaving as if it was very much alive. Prior trials of similar “Dr. Death” actors led to acquitals based on the “legal” precedent of Roe v Wade. “Quality of life” was ill-defined as a “barrier”. “Personhood”, “privacy”, “health” all nebulous legal terms, suggested a barrier that had no anchor.

    I could offer several other examples of slippery slope arguments that have proven to be accurate.

    No, not all who start at position A will fall to position D, but that is not the point. That would be like saying because not everyone slides over a glacial cliff our children should feel safe playing on them.

    The point is that if nothing inherent in position A prevents one who is logically consistent from sliding to position D, then position A is questionable footing, likely dangerous and unwise.

  • scotmcknight

    Dan,

    When you say “not all who start at position A will fall to position D” you are conceding the slope is not inevitable; that eliminates the whole argument. The analogy is too limited to be of use. The logic is “if you accept A it will lead to D” not “it may lead to D.”

    Life is more complex than logical moves in the mind.

    My reading of many moral ‘slippery slope’ arguments is that one position is not related to another position. Rather a larger commitment, belief, conviction, ideology already entails that third, fourth, or fifth position. So it is not that A leads to D but that P1 (position one) entails easier commitments to A and to D.

    That A does not always lead to D, then, may well because A is not entailed in P1 as observers think or it is held to because of P2 which does not entail D. Hope this logical scheme makes sense.

  • scotmcknight

    Dan, now to explain this more concretely:

    Bill traditionally is connected to conservative evangelicalism with a view of Scripture as inerrant.
    Bill reveals that he is in favor of women’s ordination (A).
    Wayne Grudem contends that slippery slope leads from that view to ordaining homosexuals (D).
    Bill embraces A but never comes close to D and he overtly says it is because of his view of Scripture’s clarity and authority.

    Sue embraces A (P1 is conviction of what the Bible teaches).
    Sue embraces D, but admits that she embraces D because her brother is gay (P2).
    A does not lead to D, since D is held to for reasons other than A.

    Jeff embraces A.
    Jeff embraces D.
    Jeff embraces D because he thinks the Bible’s statements on homosexuality are about cultic prostitution and pederasty.
    Otherwise, Jeff is a traditionalist.
    A does not lead to D but A is embraced and D embraced because of conviction of what the Bible teaches not because he’s denied the Bible at A.

    Wilma embraces A.
    Wilma embraces D.
    A leads to D because Wilma no longer accepts the Bible as comprehensively true, and Wilma decides A and D on largely other theologizing reasons.

    I’m doing my best to illustrate how A and D can be related.

  • Martin

    Excellent summary, Scott! It disposes of cliche’ categorizations of being ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. It is real life.

    Slippery slope arguments are based on fears of the unknown and cultural/organizational bias. They distort our thinking.

    A good read for all of us seeking truth is ‘The Geography of Thought’ by Richard Nisbett. It is not a religious book, but it provides some very interesting dynamics of how different cultures (east/west) reason.

  • Percival

    Arrgh. Lost my post because I was supposedly “posting too fast.”

    In summary: I think slippery slope arguments are not valid when it comes to logic. However, they are valid when it comes to moral issues. We actually decide many issues on the basis of emotion, group think, and personal drives rather than pure logic; therefore, it seems from experience that slippery slope arguments have validity.

  • Wade Brand

    Recently the rhetoric has been overwhelming concerning slippery slopes. They come from both ends of the political spectrum, but they are very real. For instance, in the recent speech from our president, he was so upset that they didn’t get a bill passed. He said that it was not going to be what he wanted, but it was progress. You see, that is a warning bell to everyone else that this is intended to be a step by step process in which the law slides. Are their stopping points? Of course, but how am I supposed to know what that is with that type of rhetoric?

    The argument about abortion is absurd, Roe vs. Wade itself was not the slippery slope, but many bills and judicial decisions were the slippery slope that ended in abortion. Then again, one might mention the recent debates concerning the legality of letting a baby die that failed to die when aborted and maybe then it is a bit slippery still. I find that people don’t want to talk about slippery slopes when they are the ones in power because they won’t be guilty of such crazy notions. They fail to see power down the line or they are just making other people sound crazy or irrational so they win the current debate. Maybe someone making speeches at other people should use the word solution rather than progress.

    What John Frame completely forgets to take into consideration is motion. The world is not static and law is not static. A liberal movement is even self-labeled, “progressives”. Tell me that is not a notification of “more to come”. “A” may be right, the problem is politics. In politics, when “A” worked out well, “B” must be even better. Frame’s argument is flawed, not because the logic is flawed, but as a mathematician, you must always ensure you considered all the variables, and the failure to see political momentum is tragic to his argument. It is like removing a variable in a calculus problem so you can use algebra to solve it.

  • Dan

    Scot. I could be wrong, but I think Grudem would not say that women’s ordination itself leads to ordaining gays. I think he would say that a hermeneutic move that reinterpreted specific texts to allow for women’s ordination opens the door to other texts being reinterpreted to allow gay ordination. Position A for Grudem would not be women’s ordination, position A would be a shift in hermeneutics. Position D, the cliff, would be a host of “revised” readings of the text. Women’s ordination might be step B for Grudem as opposed to being the starting position A. Episcopal Church USA may be the most vivid example.

    And no, conceding that not all who start at A will inevitably fall to D does not undermine MY argument, though it would undermine the formulation of the slippery slope that Frame makes, but I think his formulation is incorrect. Not everyone who supports abortion embraces infanticide, but that does not erase the fact that legalized abortion has, as predicted decades ago, led to widespread tolerance of or indifference to de-facto infanticide. It long ago led to “ethicist” Peter Singer extending “non-person” status to several years after birth. It has led recently to a Planned Parenthood rep being unable to articulate a point at which a live born infant should be given medical attention. It has led to a collective yawn and possibly a deliberate coverup of the Gosnell trial by a media committed to abortion. How many have to go over the slippery slope for the argument to be valid?

    I simply think it is false to dismiss ALL slippery slope arguments because some are poorly formed. Certain ideas, if followed to a logical conclusion, will lead to a bad place. I think it is just not true to reality to deny that some slippery slopes do exist and are a dangerous place to play.

  • scotmcknight

    Dan, on Grudem. The comments at TGC went to him first and not a few saw the slippery slope movement at work. Read his book on Evangelical Feminism and it’s through the book.

    If it is not inevitable it is not slippery slope; that’s why you need to listen to Frame. He’s right.

    My argument is about “entailment” and I think you are more convinced of entailment (the working out of a position that is only expressed in a given moral judgment) than the logical flow in the slippery slope argument. I’ll say it again, slippery slope arguments are bad logic and fear-mongering.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Wade (14),

    “It is like removing a variable in a calculus problem so you can use algebra to solve it.”

    Wonderful illustration. I never was much at calculus but reasonable at algebra. Yet how unreasonable it would be to try to use algebra to describe constantly changing situations. There appears to be a longing for fixity, perfection and stasis in those who imagine slippery slopes. It seems to be related to a latent, or not so latent, nominalism.

  • T

    Dan, FWIW, I don’t agree that abortion rights have “led” to euthanasia or infanticide (beyond abortions). First, none of these issues are new. Infanticide and euthanasia were practiced well before Roe v. Wade, both in our culture and certainly outside of our culture.

    As to euthanasia, the trend has been, since Roe v. Wade and unrelated to it, a dramatic up-tick in life expectancy, not a decrease, even though our ability to prolong life has often been in artificial and severely compromised ways. Even still, the clear trend is to live much longer even with greatly diminished capacity. Now, because many people who have died in decades past are now being kept alive with varying degrees of incapacity, more and more people are making decisions, sometimes in advance through a living will or a DNR, to refuse more and more treatment under certain circumstances. But this is not euthanasia; this is saying “no” to treatment or other kinds of medical help after a certain point.

    So, in a nutshell, I don’t buy it. Abortion hasn’t turned the country into killers of old people. Quite the contrary is the norm. Alzheimer’s disease is now the most expensive illness to our nation, even more than heart disease, though heart disease kills far more. Further, even attitudes on abortion itself remain very divided. We are not a nation who, having had abortion legally available for many years now, are “used to it” and accept it as a whole.

  • http://www.schooleyfiles.com Keith Schooley

    True slippery slope arguments are fallacious. But “slippery slope” is now frequently used as an ad hominem when position A logically entails position B, but the defender of position A doesn’t want to allow for position B. We frequently hear “I wouldn’t go that far” without any logical reason not to go that far.

  • Dan

    I don’t think the slippery slope argument, or any other argument, can be defined in a water-tight logical set of statements. Moral choices are not math problems or computer code “if-then” statements. It is more like a statistical trend – there are outliers and exceptions, but the trend can be pretty apparent.

    Of course the exceptions and the outliers allow some to deny the trend altogether. And listening to some of the comments here, I guess logically one could say that the parent who tells the child not to play on the face of the glacier is engaged in fallacious reasoning and fear-mongering. As a parent, I would still tell my kids to be safe.

  • scotmcknight

    Keith, you’ve pinned the tail on the donkey! Slippery slope arguments often elide into ad hominem arguments — that is, that person is unsafe so don’t listen to them.

    Dan, your last paragraph in comment 20 is a grand example of specious logic in the form of dismissive ad hominem argumentation, to which there is no response.

  • Phil Miller

    I think the issue inherent with slippery slope arguments is that it seems to assume that for any belief or position, there’s only one way that people arrive at that position. For example, I’ve read on a lot of people write on blogs over the years that rejecting a penal subsitutionary view of the atonement will inevitably lead to theological liberalism. The problem with that, of course, is that there are thousands of Christians who do reject PSA who are not and who never become theological liberals. The reasons the reject that particular doctrine have nothing to do with the reasons theological liberal reject it.

    That’s why, personally, I care less about having a person completely define to me where they stand on issues and more about them explaining their reasoning behind why they came to that position.

  • http://theatompanopticon.wordpress.com/ Brandon Blake
  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Best line in this, imho: He all but said Wayne Grudem et all ought to stop. I will.

    LOL. Thanks, Scot! :)

  • AHH

    I think one of the basic problems with “slippery slope” arguments (and its close relative the “camel’s nose under the tent” argument) is that it sets up a framework where the only stable places to be are at the two extremes, either at the top of the mountain or fallen all the way down to the bottom. A good example being the common fundamentalist approach that if we don’t view the Bible as inerrant by modern scientific standards we might as well be throwing our Bibles in the trash — or that if our theology is not like Grudem or Mohler we will probably end up down in the valley of Bultmann or Spong.

    But, much as our human minds like to see things in such simplistic binary terms, most of the time the right place to stand is NOT at either extreme. It may be a little harder work, but we need to find viable footing on the slope somewhere and resist those who would tell us that we must ultimately choose one extreme or the other.

  • http://www.schooleyfiles.com Keith Schooley

    Scot, I wish I could take your kudos at face value, but while I agree with your rejoinder (slippery slope arguments elide into ad hominem arguments), my point was nearly the opposite: that the term “slippery slope” itself is applied as an ad hominem attack, used against an argument which is not of the form “A will lead to B” (slippery slope), but rather is of the form “A logically entails B.” You can’t oppose that kind of argument simply by claiming it’s a slippery slope and therefore invalid. You have to explain why A doesn’t really entail B after all.

  • Phil Miller

    Keith, #26, I would say the burden of proof is on the one making the claim. So if a person is claiming that a slippery slope exists for a certain issue, than they have to back up that claim. And the problem with backing up claims like that is that it’s usually difficult to make universal claim like that. The reasoning behind slippery slope arguments usually goes something like “All liberal believe ___; Bob believes ____; therefore Bob is a liberal (or on his way to becoming one”. Certainly it’s easy to see the flaw in that logic.

    When you say, “You can’t oppose that kind of argument simply by claiming it’s a slippery slope and therefore invalid”, this is almost like asking someone to prove they’re not a witch.

  • Martin

    To AHH …

    You should read ‘The Geography of Thought’ by Richard Nisbett – eye-opening. I think you would appreciate it.