Slippery Slope Arguments and Tyranny
In my article last week, I talked about Michael Huemer’s notion of “false fallacies.” These are often listed in logic books as bad arguments, but some of them, Huemer suggests, are actually good arguments, at least if suitably modified.
This week, I’d like to talk about another false fallacy, one that Huemer doesn’t include on his list. This is the “slippery slope” fallacy, and at least one version of it really is a case of bad reasoning. Here is a good account of it:
In a slippery slope argument, a course of action is rejected because, with little or no evidence, one insists that it will lead to a chain reaction resulting in an undesirable end or ends. The slippery slope involves an acceptance of a succession of events without direct evidence that this course of events will happen.
Example:…. Today late for ten minutes, tomorrow late for an hour, and then someday you will simply cease to show up.
I’d like to suggest that two arguments resembling slippery slopes are actually good arguments, though they aren’t always dispositive. The first of these is this: “If you have already accepted policy A on certain grounds, then you can’t reasonably object to policy B, which is supported on the same grounds as policy A.” Here is an example that is especially important for us today. In his notorious decision in Buck v. Bell (1927), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld a compulsory sterilization law, ending his opinion with the famous line: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” He supports his ruling with the version of the slippery slope I’m now talking about. He says that if we accept conscription, and also compulsory vaccination as a health measure, we should accept sterilization as well.
Here is the relevant passage from his opinion:
We have seen more than once t
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