15 March 2013

Slippery-slope arguments

It's a form of argument often used against change:  "We cannot allow proposed change X, because it would set us inexorably on the road to further hypothetical change Y, which is clearly unacceptable."  At present the slippery slope is often invoked, more or less explicitly, by opponents of gay marriage:  "If we allow gay marriage, why not polygamous marriage, or brother-sister marriage, or people marrying their dogs?  Acceptance of the one change will open the door to a push for acceptance of those others -- we can't take the risk."

I completely reject slippery-slope arguments.  For one thing, by this kind of logic, we should never change anything at all, since any change, no matter how obviously beneficial, can be portrayed as a potential gateway to some other hypothetical change that everyone agrees would be bad.  Equally important, the historical record doesn't support the validity of such arguments.

One can imagine similar slippery-slope objections being made during controversies in the past --in the 1860s, "If we emancipate black slaves, it will lead to demands that horses be similarly emancipated from human ownership", or somewhat later, "If we allow blacks to vote, it will lead to demands that women be allowed to vote".  For all I know, people might actually have made those precise objections at those times.  They would have seemed just as logical then as slippery-slope objections to gay marriage do today, and they illustrate why such objections aren't valid.

To take the first example, as we now know (and as even quite a few people in the 19th century recognized), skin color is a superficial trait which doesn't inherently correlate with any human ability relevant to a capacity for citizenship or self-determination.  The apparent differences in ability between the black and white populations in the US in the 1860s stemmed from the dramatically different levels of education, access to resources, and other environmental factors under which those populations had developed.  Horses, by contrast, are an entirely different species, and no set of environmental conditions would allow a horse to develop the same mental abilities as a human.  If there had ever been a serious movement to promote horses to full citizenship, it would easily have been exposed as absurd on its own merits, even among people who accepted that discrimination among humans on the basis of skin color was wrong.

As for the second example, as we all know, in the early 20th century there was indeed a movement to extend the vote to women, and it succeeded.  Again, though, the question was settled on its own merits, not by mindless replication of the result of an earlier controversy.  The case that women are as innately qualified for full citizenship as men are won the day, not just because a similar argument about race had been accepted earlier, but because it was valid on its own merits -- as the same case made for horses clearly would not be.

This does not mean, of course, that analogies between different social changes are never valid.  I have myself sometimes compared the opponents of gay marriage with the opponents of interracial marriage a couple of generations ago.  Advocates of, say, polygamy would no doubt offer similar analogies.  But again, in each case, the analogy must stand or fall on its own merits -- are the opponents indeed motivated by mindless prejudice and visceral repulsion, or do they have a valid case in the present debate which opponents in the earlier debate did not?

My point is, even if proposed change X is accepted, that does not make the slippery slope to hypothetical change Y inevitable, though it may make the question easier to raise.  Once gay marriage is legal nationwide and generally accepted (as seems inevitable now), we may indeed see serious efforts to win acceptance for polygamy, or brother-sister marriage, or human-animal marriage.  But if so, the outcome of the ensuing debate over those proposals will not be a foregone conclusion just because gay marriage won out in its time.  Each one will be debated on its own merits and will be accepted or rejected on its own merits.


Blogger Green Eagle said...

As for the classic slippery slope argument you mention:

"If we allow gay marriage, why not polygamous marriage, or brother-sister marriage, or people marrying their dogs?"

Honestly, who cares if someone marries their dog? How would that hurt anyone?

Be my guest- marry your dog. Just remember, the sex is never as good after you tie the knot.

15 March, 2013 21:16  
Anonymous Lord Zomglol said...

Looks like we can put Green Eagle down as an early adopter.

16 March, 2013 06:55  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

GE: No argument from me there. I think the idea only seems freaky to most people because they've never had occasion to think about it beyond the initial "yuck" reaction.

LZ: Well, early tolerater, anyway.

16 March, 2013 10:15  
Blogger LadyAtheist said...

The dog can't consent. The other forms of marriage wouldn't really bother me, though. DNA testing could help incestuous couples avoid genetic diseases.

17 March, 2013 03:12  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

LA: It's usually pretty easy to tell when an animal objects to something that's being done to it (try washing a cat) -- why not use the same standard by which we could tell whether it's consenting to sex with another dog? As for incestuous couples, good point -- and we don't prohibit non-related people from marrying just because they have genetic issues that could affect offspring.

17 March, 2013 03:24  

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