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
- 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
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
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.