Slip Slidin’ Away

In an episode of Seinfeld, the title character befriends Keith Hernandez, the famous major league first baseman. Hernandez promptly invites Seinfeld to help him move. Kramer and George are stunned at the man’s audacity. “The next thing you know,” they warn their old friend, “he’ll have you driving him to the airport.”

This is a classic application of the slippery slope argument: It is wrong for Seinfeld to take this (seemingly) innocent first step because it will slide uncontrollably into a morally undesirable situation.

Most introductory logic textbooks will tell you that the slippery slope is an outright fallacy, a mistake in reasoning, which must be avoided at all costs. For the most part, this is right. In many situations it is simply impossible to predict whether the first innocent step will lead to moral catastrophe.

Another problem with slippery slope arguments is that they take a consequentialist (and hence, non-biblical) approach to judging moral actions. On this way of thinking, the first step is wrong only if the down-slope effects contain a preponderance of evil. Unfortunately, different people will add up the results in different ways. Not everyone will agree that that the consequences are overwhelmingly evil because not everyone will agree on what counts as “good” and what counts as “evil.” If slippery slope arguments are to have any merit at all, we have to find out whether the first step is wrong in and of itself. The proposed action cannot be condemned simply on the grounds that it might have bad results.

Seinfeld comes to the same conclusion. It is not a matter of whether moving furniture will lead to something worse, but whether it is appropriate to make such demands on a brand new friend in the first place. When Hernandez mentions twelve-piece sectionals and three flights of stairs, Seinfeld realizes the line has been crossed. It is too much, too soon.

A convincing slippery slope argument also needs to substantiate the impending slide. This is not just a question of what might and might not happen in our wildest imaginations, but of what we can reasonably expect from the evidence at hand. The late British philosopher, Bernard Williams, suggested that we look for an “actual social fact,” such as a “motive for people to move from one step to next.”[1]

Again, the prospects of a slide into moral oblivion is not what makes the first step wrong. That first step needs to be wrong all by itself. However, raising the specter of a slippery slope puts everyone on notice that a line has been crossed and, as a result, the entire moral landscape is about to change for the worse.

The field of medical ethics is replete with slippery slopes. In simpler times, doctors might have respected Judeo-Christian teaching on the sanctity of life. Even pagan physicians swore by the Hippocratic Oath not to aid in suicides or abortions. Once these absolutes were exchanged for vague notions such as “quality of life” or “personhood,” then a sliding scale of moral worth was inevitable.

Vagueness forces secular ethicists to make a choice: either they can draw completely arbitrary, unprincipled lines in the ever-shifting moral sands; or they can admit that there is a slippery slope. As you may imagine, they are loathe to accept the second option.

So what are some of the “actual social facts” that confirm the presence of a slippery slope? Consider two examples. In the late 1800s, Francis Galton built his theory of eugenics on Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” This led to the forced sterilization of American women and the Nazi policy of “racial hygiene.” Unconstrained by democracy, eugenics in Hitler’s Germany slid rapidly from sterilization, to mass destruction of “life without hope,” to the Final Solution.[2]

The Dutch experience with euthanasia is another case in point. What started out as a refusal to prosecute an illegal act (doctors helping patients kill themselves) turned into a full-blown law allowing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. The country moved incrementally from withdrawal of treatment to the active taking of human life; it moved from the elderly to patients of all ages; it moved from voluntary requests to unilateral decisions by doctors; and it moved from a limited set of medical circumstances to a wide variety of physical and mental conditions.

There was nothing innocent about the first step in each case. New and vague definitions of human life were motivated by a desire to undermine objective, absolute standards of morality. And so perhaps we cannot blame Sarah Palin for raising the specter of “death panels” in the context of current health care reforms.[3] Critics will claim she went too far, but history will confirm her intuitions.

[A version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Think.]

[1] Bernard Williams, Making Sense of Humanity, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 218.

[2] Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide, UNC Press, 1995.


© 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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