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Slippery Slopes and Reasonable Life Choices

by Frank L. Pasquale

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 19, Number 2.

Slippery-slope arguments seem to be on the rise these days. You know the ones-those that assert an extreme position in order to hold all others at bay by arguing that any reasonable or moderate option is the first step down the road to an opposite extreme.

Consider, for example, the following historical examples:

  • Democracy is a dangerous idea: it threatens the stability of theocratic or monarchic rule and is a slippery slope ending in anarchy.
  • Freedom of speech is a dangerous principle: the integrity of government cannot be sustained under an unchecked barrage of criticism and public disclosure. Free speech is a slippery slope to an anarchic mob rather than an orderly citizenry and a manageable state.
  • Or, conversely, any constraint whatsoever on free speech is a dangerous constraint on the right of individual expression, and the first step down a slippery slope to an oppressive police state.

Many slippery-slope arguments bear "grains of truth," but it is worth asking whether these grains are sufficiently weighty or compelling to tip the scale of argument fully in favor of their extreme positions. As these examples indicate, they usually aren't. And as the last two indicate, dueling arguments of this form can be readily marshalled on either side of an issue.

The same kind of arguments now swirl around a host of "life and death" issues, such as stem-cell research and cloning, euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide. For example:

  • Senator Gordon Smith's (R-Oregon) conclusion, not long ago, that even controlled, unfertilized-egg, out-of-womb cellular cloning of specialized stem cells must be prohibited because, as his spokesman states, "it takes you to the precipice of a slippery slope" which will inevitably lead to cloning a human being.
  • Or, as in a recent televised debate, the assertion that physician-assisted suicide cannot be allowed under any circumstances because this will send us down the slippery slopes of devalued human life or abuse by evil and avaricious relatives.

I have long been unconvinced of the wisdom or utility of slippery-slope arguments in our efforts to reach reasonable resolutions and decisions on issues of principle, be they moral, political, or legal. These latest examples only reinforce such skepticism.
The best that can be said about slippery-slope arguments is that they underscore possible (but usually remote) dangers of a given course of action. They suggest care and caution and vigilance as we move along new paths. This is wise. But taken at face value, arguments of this form represent absolutist extremes on either side of more reasonable deliberation and choice.

Of course, it is important to distinguish between principles or issues that admit of satisfactory "gray" resolutions and principles or conditions that are unacceptable in any degree. For example, a little bit of slavery is not merely a slippery slope but a condition unacceptable in any degree. And slippery slopes must be distinguished from clear and present dangers. Chemical or biological or nuclear warfare, we can hope the world will conclude, qualify as phenomena where even a little is too much.
But apart from this, more often than not, slippery-slope arguments serve only to polarize rather than point the way to reasonable moral and political decisions.

A recent letter-writer to the Portland Oregonian asserted in the absolute that euthanasia (as well as voluntary suicide) "is not a compassionate answer to the needs of the terminally ill" (even when carefully monitored and controlled with multiple checks and balances as in the case of the Oregon law allowing physician-assisted dying). And yet I am aware of innumerable reported circumstances in which pain is so intractable (and medically unmanageable) or a disease so degenerative (and untreatable) that rational adults arrange for their own deaths by car exhaust, self-inflicted wounds, or plunging off buildings.

Others rail against any clonal manipulation of human cells (even somatic cell nuclear transfer in which unfertilized human eggs multiply specialized stem cells outside human wombs). This is even in the face of proposed laws and punitive measures aiming to prohibit and prevent the many additional steps required to clone a full human being. And this is over and against the promise of reaping new cures for human diseases from the specialized cells so cautiously produced.

Those who proclaim eternal absolutes to the effect that life is always and in every circumstance preferable to death, or proclaim that allowing choice in dying will inevitably foster widespread and callous disregard for life itself, have too little respect for individual lives, the quality of those lives, or the tenacity of the human impulse to live. Extreme, absolute, and apparently morally upright positions that appear to "promote life" absolutely are easier for some to live with—and make it easier for them to appear morally upright—than choices to pursue uncharted middle ways, for the latter inevitably bring unknown challenges, are fraught with uncertainty, and require constant vigilance. But they may also bring the promise of hope and a quality of life that is even more valuable and more vital, if we remain cautious and reasonable and vigilant as we proceed.

It's worth noting that, if slippery-slope arguments and absolutism had held sway throughout history, it's unlikely that we'd be living in a democracy or be enjoying even a moderate measure of free speech. Thankfully, there were those who were willing to chart unknown courses along the challenging pathways between and around slippery slopes.

Frank L. Pasquale, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist researching and writing on religion, humanism, church-state separation, morality, and ethics. He is based in Portland, Oregon.

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