Hastily Generalizing the Slippery Slope

Friend of the CADRE Phil Steiger (whose own blog Every Thought Captive is recommended daily reading) made a comment on my post entitled "Cleft Lips and Palates, Abortion and Discrimination in the U.K." which read as follows:

There are many people out there who do not believe in the validity of the 'slippery slope' argument, but I am afraid reality bears it out. If we are at a point where a society is willing to label this a handicap, then we have slipped a long way indeed!

Slippery Slope arguments were identified in my college textbook on logic as an informal fallacy. Yet, as I have followed the events of the world, I cannot help but notice that people who argued against various positions in my own lifetime on the basis of slippery slopes have turned out to be quite prophetic. My fellow blogger Layman (who has been quite busy at the office the past few days) has earlier voiced his doubt about slippery slopes but recognizes that bright lines are sometimes helpful which, in my view, shows a realization that some slippery slopes are true.

How do we tell when a slippery slope argument is simply fallacious or may have merit? To answer that requires a quick review of the slippery slope fallacy. According to The Nizkor Project:

The Slippery Slope is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in question and no reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This "argument" has the following form:

1. Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
2. Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.
This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there is a significant number of steps or gradations between one event and another.

The first thing to note about this description of the slippery slope is that the fallacy occurs only when "some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question." The argument is fallacious, according to Nizkor, because "there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim." Thus, slippery slopes are fallacious arguments only when there is no argument made as to why the next step on the slope should follow from the first.

In other words, the slippery slope argument looks basically like the following:

1. A will lead to B.
2. B will lead to C.
3. C will lead to D.
4. Therefore, A will lead to D.

These claims are simply that -- claims. There is no argument attached to support the propositions that A will lead to B or B will lead to C, etc. But suppose my argument looks like the following:

1. A will lead to B because . . . .
2. B will lead to C because . . . .
3. C will lead to D because . . . .
4. Therefore, A will lead to D.

In this circumstance, I have given reasons for each step of the slope. Now, it may be that my reasons do not support the statement. Thus, I could say "The upcoming G5 Summit will lead to war because the sky is blue." In such a case, there is no rational basis for concluding that because the sky is blue the upcoming G5 Summit will lead to war. But, if I say "The upcoming G5 Summit will lead to war because the Netherlands has promised to attack if the summit takes place," then I have given a reason supporting my view that "A will lead to B."

So, if I argue that we are sliding down the slippery slope towards killing other people who are incapable of caring for themselves, I may be committing the fallacy of slippery slope if I do not support my argument with reasons for believing that we are on the slide. However, if I can show that there are reasons to believe we are sliding down the slope, then to simply argue that because I am using a series of "A will lead to B which will lead to C . . . " statements that I am committing the slippery slope fallacy commits another logical error: the error of hasty generalization.

Consider the following argument which was made by Leo Alexander in 1949 when speaking about "mercy killings" by the Nazis:

The beginnings at first were a subtle shifting in the basic attitude of the physicians. It started with the acceptance of the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually, the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans.

This argument suggests that the mindset that accepts that some human life is not worthy of living led to an acceptance of mercy killing of the socially unproductive then the ideologically unwanted, then the racially unwanted, finally ending with all non-Germans. It is seen as a classic case of slippery slope by those who support euthanasia, but is it? Certainly, it claims that A led to B which led to C which led to D, etc. But are the steps unsupported? If they are unsupported, it is a fallacious argument. But if the steps are supported, then the argument is not fallacious simply because there are a series of "A leads to B"s involved.

Thus, if I assert that abortion has led to the devaluing of human life which has led to such things as the Terri Schiavo case and the acceptance of partial birth abortion, is this simply a slippery slope fallacy or is this a valid argument? It depends upon my reasons for making such an assertion. Since I don't want to post too long, I will simply leave it for readers to decide whether there has been a case made or whether these arguments are simply an assertion that "some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question." However, I will leave you with two thoughts that I believe demonstrates that we are slipping down a real slope:

1. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that abortion was constitutionally protected in Roe v. Wade, the court stated that from the point of viability to birth, abortion could be prohibited except as to protect the life of the mother. In the on-going debate over Partial Birth Abortion (which is actually infanticide because the baby is 90% born before being killed), the viability of the baby seems to be irrelevant. Consider the following about the infamous Dr. Haskell -- one of the leading providers of partial birth abortions:

In 1993, the American Medical News-- the official newspaper of the AMA-- conducted a tape-recorded interview with Dr. Haskell concerning this specific abortion method, in which he said:

And I'll be quite frank: most of my abortions are elective in that 20-24 week range. . . . In my particular case, probably 20% [of this procedure] are for genetic reasons. And the other 80% are purely elective.

In a lawsuit in 1995, Dr. Haskell testified that women come to him for partial-birth abortions with "a variety of conditions. Some medical, some not so medical." Among the "medical" examples he cited was "agoraphobia" (fear of open places). Moreover, in testimony presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee on November 17, 1995, ob/gyn Dr. Nancy Romer of Dayton (the city in which Dr. Haskell operates one of his abortion clinics) testified that three of her own patients had gone to Haskell's clinic for abortions "well beyond" 4 1/2 months into pregnancy, and that "none of these women had any medical illness, and all three had normal fetuses."

For what reasons are partial-birth abortions usually performed?

2. In the 1990's, Dr. Jack Kervorkian, a.k.a., Jack the Dripper, was sent to jail in Michigan for second degree murder when he ended the life of a terminally ill patient. Physician-assisted suicide is illegal in all but a handful of states. Over thirty states have enacted statutes prohibiting assisted suicide, and of those that do not have statutes, a number of them arguably prohibit it through common law. Yet, today, a CBS news poll shows and the St. Petersburg Times contends that majority of Americans apparently agree with Michael Schiavo that it is okay to pull the feeding tube from Terri Schiavo because she is in a persistent vegetative state and Michael Schaivo (who clearly has conflicts of interest on this point) has testified that she would have wanted to die.