If Bob McCoskrie is allowed a blog, what next?

slippery-slope

Three reasons slippery slope arguments are stupid:

1. Slippery slope arguments make you look like you can’t articulate a proper argument against what’s actually being discussed. “Why is this bad? Because it could lead to something bad happening.”

2. You can use them to say pretty much whatever you want:

If we allow straight people to marry, what next? Gay people wanting to marry too?

If we allow blacks and whites to marry, what next? Gay people wanting to marry too?

If we ban gay marriage, what next? Banning straight marriage?

If we let gay people raise kids, what next? Letting single parents raise kids?

If we make alcohol legal, what next? P?

If taxes on cigarettes go up, what next? Taxes on rich people going up? (I wish!)

If we change the time-honoured tradition of modern Western marriage, what next? Changing the time-honoured traditions of drink-driving and domestic violence?

If we eliminate gender restrictions on marriage, what next? Elimination of gender inequality in straight marriages?

If gay people are allowed to marry, what next? Elimination of alienation, victimisation and mental health issues among gay youth?

If gay people are allowed to marry, what next? I might have to buy them a wedding present?

3. Slippery slope arguments understand a change through a constructed narrative, rather than looking at the specific phenomenon and the actual history of change.

Swift recourse to slippery slope arguments implies that the only lens through which you can understand something is in part of a broad category of “changes to ‘traditional’ marriage” or “strange new developments” or “things my pastor told me God doesn’t like.”

This is actually a serious moral deficiency insofar as it displays a lack of ability to analyse the specific significance of something and how it affects people and society. So gay people in loving, mutual relationships are equated with sex addicts, paedophiles and men who have sex with dolphins.

Worse, proponents of slippery slope arguments project their own failures of moral imagination onto their opponents. Instead of listening and responding to the actual arguments of those who are arguing for (e.g.) gay marriage, they caricature their opponents’ moral logic into a simple reverse of their own: I want to preserve ‘traditional’ marriage. Therefore, You want to change ‘traditional’ marriage.

But “changing ‘traditional’ marriage” probably isn’t the best way of explaining the history of gay rights, and there’s certainly no alliance of polygamists and cousin-marriers plotting with gay people on what their next blow against ‘traditional’ marriage will be. If there’s any plotting, it will be about how to further increase the rights and respect of LGBTI people (see second-to-last statement in #2 above).

Of course, the increasing focusing of morality around individual freedoms, developing throughout (post-)modernity, may have something to do with the increasing support for LGBTI rights. (Or with why the marriage rights of individuals is a more important moral issue to most NZers than our ballooning economic inequality.) But individualism/liberalism can’t account for the entirety of the motivations and arguments for gay marriage. Moreover, the recent law change is the removal of a gender restriction, not a liberalisation of relationships.

Anyway, the trend towards individualism/liberalism doesn’t just mean “changes to ‘traditional’ marriage.” It’s just as much ‘to blame’ for the rise of the nuclear family, freedom of religion, and freedom to publish verbal diarrhoea about slippery slopes on the internet. Where were the slippery slope arguments then?

Two occasions where modified versions of slippery slope arguments might be OK:

1. Pointing out the logical implications of people’s assertions. This isn’t really a slippery slope argument so much as an examination of the wider scope of someone’s moral logic.

For example, if someone says “I think everyone should be allowed to marry whoever they want, so long as they consent” you can respond “So a brother and sister should be allowed to marry?” or “So one woman should be allowed to marry three men and a consenting goose?”

In which case the response is either, “Yes, I suppose you’re right, I’m happy to let people do what they want” or (more likely) “Hmmm, no, I’ll rephrase. I mean everyone should be allowed to marry whoever they want, so long as they consent and so long as it doesn’t harm them or others.”

And then – and here’s the important part – you get into a more constructive debate about which relationships we should see as inherently harmful, and why… and each case can be examined separately.

Of course this requires actually listening to what someone is saying and analysing their moral logic. For example, If someone’s moral logic is “I believe most people should be encouraged to enter healthy, lifelong, supportive marriages with people they love, and I don’t believe any particular gender roles are necessary components of a healthy marriage” the implications are going to be quite different to the liberal-permissive logic often assumed by slippery-slope proponents.

2. When there is an actual connection between what’s happening now and what might be the logical next step… and where the current step would actually make it easier for the next step to happen.

This is particularly useful if what is happening now is generally seen as harmless, but what might happen in the future is not. In this case, a slippery slope argument could form part of a range of considerations, showing that the consequences of what is happening now may be wider than people may think.

A good example might be expanding the powers of the GCSB. Even if you support some functions of the GCSB, we all know that all-encompassing Big Brother-esque powers is going too far, and it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. Since we can observe an international process of increasing powers of surveillance agencies and reducing human liberties and privacy, particularly since 9/11, it makes sense to call place the current GCSB bill in this context and let possible future developments enter into our considerations. (In fact, maybe we should have thought more about these ‘slippery slopes’ when the GCSB first opened, or when the Terrorism Suppression Act was passed, etc.)

Obviously, this is very different to gay marriage / polygamy etc. The connections are a lot closer, and the various ‘steps’ are a lot more gradual and difficult to examine/evaluate separately. Moreover, since the laws are complex the process is a lot easier to understand than the individual developments – again unlike gay marriage.

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7 comments

  1. Shawn

    I think social conservatives, and this is a generalization, tend to look at the last 60 or so years and see a pattern in which one “liberal” change eventually led to another. So I can understand that pov.

    But I agree, slippery slope arguments are lazy, and can be used to make any point you want.

    My primary concern about LGB… (these acronyms are dubious) “rights” as they are currently being pursued is that they are focused on using the power of the State, not to advance negative rights, which I agree with, but positive rights, which always end up diminishing someone else’s rights. The Human Rights Act is a good example. Rather than expanding real rights it violates one of the most basic and important rights in a free society, the right to voluntary association. The recent gay marriage bill is another example. If the bills supporters had really been concerned about freedom rather than authoritarian social engineering, they would have simply removed the State from defining marriage in the first place. Privatization would have left everyone equally free to define marriage for themselves, in any way they wanted, without fear of being forced to agree with anyone else’s definition.

    But I strongly suspect that real freedom and legal equality was not the motivating concern. It rarely is when politicians are involved.

    • calebmorgan

      That makes sense from one perspective, but others (on both sides of the gay marriage debate) value the collectives they’re part of more, including their national society, and thus are concerned with the values and definitions of those collectives rather than just the values and definitions of individuals … and under the current political system an important part of this is how the state defines marriage. Most people support marriage as a state-administered institution, and prefer to argue over how the state defines it, rather than dealing with the disagreements by eradicating state-administered marriage. You can say that’s authoritarian social engineering, but that charge applies equally to pro- and anti- gay marriage camps… it’s not a criticism of the gay marriage act, it’s a criticism of the ongoing system of state-administered marriage that the gay marriage act (as well as most of its opponents) assumes.

      But even if you agree that state-administered marriage should be abolished (a position I’m sympathetic to), it’s consistent to say something like “if the state is going to insist upon administering marriage, they should at least use a decent definition” or “the state shouldn’t define marriage, but it definitely shouldn’t define it to exclude gay couples … so i support the bill as an improvement but still not ideal.”

      Also, others are more happy to support positive rights alongside negative (Positive rights gives positive rights while diminishing others’ positive/negative rights. Negative-only protects negative rights and is less likely to curtail others’ negative rights, yet doesn’t guarantee any positive rights, and could be more likely to allow various forms of harm/injustice that aren’t defined under the banner of negative rights. Swings and roundabouts and I can respect both perspectives as at least internally consistent – which one you choose will come down to wider positions on what you value & your view of the empirical effects of each approach). Again, most people on both sides support the state providing the positive right of marriage for couples that want to be married, provided they meet certain criteria … they just disagree about what those criteria should be.

      I’m actually more interested in whether the churches maintain or remove gender restrictions on Christian marriage. I implicitly made the blog about the national law because this is a ‘secular’ blog, but my main concern was to critique slippery slope arguments which happen in both debates.

      • Shawn

        The problem with collectives is that they are purely subjective, and thus not a valid (to me) basis for laws and rights. In the objective sense, only individuals have concrete existence, thus laws and rights can only apply to them.

        The Church is a totally different matter. The Church cannot change the definition of marriage given to us by Christ. Issues such as procreation or gender are thus not relevant. Only one thing is, how did Jesus define marriage? One man and one women for life. For me that settles it. The WHY is not relevant, as in why did Jesus say man and women. I don’t know, and I don’t care. All I care about is His word and command. So I cannot see how the Church can change that without ceasing to be the Church, as in the disciples of Jesus.

        That said, I am totally open to at least the possibility of ‘companionship’ blessings, as part of for example, the prayer rite for house blessings, and I don’t think that same sex couples in lifelong commuted relationships should be in any way excluded from Church.

        An addendum to what I said at the start: I’m not saying collectives don’t exist, I am saying that they do not exist in a way which makes them a valid basis for law.

        Also, I agree that both liberal statists and conservative statists want to engage in authoritarian social engineering. I’m equally opposed to both, and for the same reason. That’s why I often find myself disagreeing with both the Christian Right and the Christian Left. I’m pretty sure Jesus said something about not Lording it over others, but both groups seem to miss that.

        • Shawn

          Final addendum! 🙂

          Yes, most people in our society want the state to do this or that. I have no respect for their position, and fiercely oppose them violating mine or anyone elses freedom and rights in the name of democracy. It may be one point of view that has its own internal consistency, but it’s morally wrong to the point of being evil. Merely because a majority of people who live on the same street as me get together and vote to steal from me does not make their actions any less wrong.

          Or to put it simply; democracy is not an excuse.

          The prevalence of so many with this view is one of the best arguments for the right to bear arms.

          • calebmorgan

            Good to see this guy proudly exercising that right http://img.chinasmack.com/www/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/severed-bear-paw-seized-china-chongqing-airport-01.jpg

            Seriously though, let’s debate the theology on other blogs, Peter’s for instance.

            And re: individuals/collectives – different societies (and different individuals) have different perspectives on what is more real, the individual or the collective. And there can be various ways of measuring how real they are. (similar to physics and debates about Newtownian atomism vs. newer more ‘relational’ perspectives in quantum physics etc, at least as far as i understand it … which is not much). Personally i’d say both individuals and collectives are real enough to have rights based on them. You’re equating the physical existence of human bodies with the existence of individuals, which is not strictly speaking the same thing… it’s just a tautology using how you see humankind to prove how you see humankind.

            I sympathise with your position re: statism and lording it over others etc, but I try to have a more nuanced/pragmatic approach to specific issues (rightly or wrongly).

            • Shawn

              I agree about not discussing theology here, I was responding to the point you brought up. But don’t participate on Peter’s blog anymore, far too much ad hominem is allowed, and I just don’t like to put myself through that.

              I disagree that I’m using a tautology. Show me a collective. Human beings are individuals. That is a simple matter if observation. Even in their relational aspect, they are still individuals. A collective is an idea, or an ideology, not a person, and only persons can have rights. Thus in attempting to give rights to collectives, the state is giving rights to an abstract idea or belief. Not only is that impossible in practice, it is a recipe for tyranny and oppression, and an easy way to invent faux rights out of thin air.

              Like democracy, nuance and pragmatism are not an excuse. If any action by the state or non-state person or group violates the non-aggression principle, then it is always wrong. That’s why I said I was not proud of having voted for National. I violated my own commitment only to vote for parties that adhere to that principle, and NZ only has one of those.

              Justice, to be justice, must be as much about means as it is about ends. That is why so much of what passes for “social justice” is anything but.

              If a policy violates the non-aggression principle then it is unjust, oppressive and tyrannical, no matter what end it achieves.

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