Thursday, October 31, 2013

Taking the Slippery Slope Seriously...

...At least seriously enough to show why those who invoke it can't be serious.

The other day a student of mine told me she'd been with a friend to a Young Republicans meeting. Since we'd recently been talking about same-sex marriage in class, when the topic came up at the meeting she asked the speaker about the propriety of invoking religious arguments when the topic is civil marriage.

The speaker responded with the famed slippery slope argument: If we let gays get married, what's to stop Farmer Joe from marrying his goat?

Apparently, he conceded that this wasn't likely to happen "here in Oklahoma." But still, he threw it out there as an "extreme" that legalizing same-sex marriage would open the door to.

My student was a bit astonished, probably because the slippery slope argument was one of the more preposterous challenges to marriage equality that we'd talked about in class. It was an argument I'd picked apart with some care. Once you've actually done that--taken the time to walk through the process of picking apart the logic (or lack thereof) of the slippery slope argument--it's very hard to take seriously anyone who brings it up in all earnestness.

But not everyone has actually walked through the argument in that careful way. It's not surprising. More often than not in public dialogue today, when someone brings up the slippery slope argument critics respond with rolling eyes, ridicule, and one-liners.

I understand the impulse. I do. I even think there's a place for it. But there's also a place for taking the argument seriously enough to demonstrate why it doesn't work--why it's failure is not just a matter of opinion but a fact about the argument.

Most critics don't take the time to show this. Consider the following rebuttal from Bill Maher:

Now he makes a significant point here: As a matter of history, instances of extending rights to people traditionally excluded from them have not, inevitably, led to animals acquiring those same rights.

But there are problems. First of all, there are those (such as Peter Singer) who draw parallels between the pursuit of human equality and the pursuit of animal equality, and attempt to make the case for animal equality on those grounds. They don't support voting rights for dogs--for good reasons. But if you're not thinking clearly about those reasons, you might get caught up in confusions that undercut what Maher is trying to say.

The deeper problem with Bill Maher’s comment here is that some people will say, “Yeah, but same-sex marriage is different from voting rights for women.” They’re wrong about that, but Maher’s comment doesn’t show them why. And until you clearly show why, those who persist in making the slippery slope argument can do so without its unsoundness being plain for all reasonable people to see.

So, consider this post an effort to show why same-sex marriage is no more likely to open the door to inter-species nuptials than women's suffrage was prone to culminate in voting rights for lemurs. If anyone doesn't already see why this is so, feel free to refer them here.

When I talk about the slippery slope argument against same-sex marraige with my intro-level ethics students, I treat it as if it were a serious objection. This affords me the opportunity to make some general points about when slippery-slope arguments are valid and when they're not.

I explain it as follows: A "slippery slope" from one public policy decision to some extreme outcome exists if and only if your reasons for making the policy decision, were they accepted as sufficient, would also have to be regarded as sufficient for allowing the extreme outcome. So, you need to ask about the REASONS why we would make the policy decision in question. If the reasons for extending voting rights to women are also adequate reasons for extending those same rights to hamsters and lemurs and squid, then a slippery slope exists. If the reasons don't extend from women's suffrage to hamster suffrage in this way, then no slippery slope exists.

So: in the case of extending voting rights to women, what was the reason? It was that women have both an interest in democratic participation through voting and a capacity to participate in this way. As such, their disenfranchisement is legal discrimination. Not so for hamsters.

Likewise, gays and lesbian have both an interest in having their intimate life-partnerships legally recognized and supported by the battery of rights that go with civil marriage, and they have the capacity to enter into such legal partnerships. As such, their exclusion from marriage is legal discrimination. Not so for Farmer Joe and his goat.

This is the short version. But a more detailed debunking of the slippery-slope argument is possible...and, for reasons I'll get to at the end, I think it's worth it.

Equality under the law is a crucially important secular value in a liberal democracy. Thus, any unequal treatment under the law requires a compelling justification—of the sort that obtains in the case of, say, denying drivers’ licenses to the blind. The justification cannot be a purely sectarian religious one (such as, “My faith teaches me that women are subordinate to men and should defer to men in important decision-making, and so shouldn't vote”). That would allow one religion, not shared by all in society, to trump a central, shared secular value (namely the desire everyone has to be treated equally under the law). Such religious trumping of secular values would mean the state is adopting for policy purposes a particular religion’s beliefs, and it would involve making all citizens subject to the implications of this one religion’s teachings. As such, it would violate both separation of church and state and freedom of religion.

Put simply, women were given the right to vote because failure to give them this right amounted to discrimination under the law, and we couldn't see any compelling secular justification for such discrimination.

But what about hamsters? Hamsters have no interest at all in democratic participation through voting...and are wholly incapable of it. Give them the vote, and they'll keep running in the hamster wheel and chewing all night long on the bars of their cage. And they will never vote. Ever. Although some hamster owners might see the opportunity for voter fraud by registering their hamsters and "helping" them cast their ballots.

In short, denying voting rights to hamsters does not deny them anything they could actually use. The case for legal discrimination doesn't even get off the ground. You're not the victim of discrimination when the law refuses to give you what the law cannot possibly give you.

The same-sex marriage case is completely parallel to this. In the case of extending civil marriage rights to same-sex couples, what’s the reason? The reason begins with an understanding of what, from the standpoint of the state that confers civil marriages, the marital relationship is. The state sees marriage as an intimate association defined in terms of life-partnership, a partnership usually formed based on love and characterized by mutuality, support in life's activities (which may or may not involve shared responsibility in child-rearing), shared decision-making, help in times of trouble, etc. The range of legal rights conferred on married couples reflect this understanding of the marital contract as an intimate life-partnership.

So here's the problem. Restricting civil marriage to straight couples means that legal recognition of one's intimate, loving life-partnership (and the rights that go with that recognition) is made available to persons with a heterosexual orientation but denied to those with a homosexual one. This is legal discrimination (and if you think Michele Bachmann's rebuttal to this has any force, see here). Legal discrimination must have an adequate justification—which can’t be a sectarian religious one.

The reason why more and more people are arguing for extending civil marriage rights to gays and lesbians is because not doing so is legal discrimination, and because they can't see any compelling secular justification for inequality under the law in this case.

But what about Farmer Joe and his goat? They're not being denied anything by being deprived the right to marry, because they cannot form an intimate life-partnership in any event. A "partnership" in the human sense involves a deliberate mutual decision to share in the challenges and opportunities of life, to make important choices together, to share responsibilities, etc. My friends John and David are fully capable of forming such a partnership (although Rick Santorum seems committed to denying this for reasons that are more than dubious and involve waving napkins around). My friends Pat and Diana have a long-standing partnership that would be a model for married couples everywhere.

Joe and his goat, not so much.

Thus, Joe and his goat aren't being denied legal recognition of an intimate life partnership, because they can't have such a thing in the first place. The case for legal discrimination against Joe and his goat doesn't even get off the ground--and this is clear even if we never even address the fact that homosexuality as an orientation is real, whereas the hypothesis of a hetero-species orientation (such that some people--and goats, I suppose--are only capable of forming and sustaining romantic relationships with animals of species other than their own) is dubious at best.

Even were we to somehow stumble erroneously into the view that it is legal discrimination to deny Joe and his goat a wedding licence, there are obvious secular justifications for such "discrimination" that simply don't come up in the case of the actual discrimination that is really taking place when same-sex couples are denied civil marriage. The state is in the marriage business in part (as Jonathan Rauch has convincingly argued) to help provide "default support persons" for members of society--someone whose job it is to be there to help you through the hard times. That's a key reason why the government happily issues marriage licenses to elderly couples who meet at the church bake sale, even though there is no prospect of children. It's a good reason for the state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, too.

But the goat isn't going to provide Farmer Joe with any such support. I suppose Joe could eat the goat if he falls on hard times, but a marriage license won't help him do that.

It may seem as if, by taking this argument as seriously as I have, I've been beating a dead horse. Or a dead goat.

And I have. The metaphorical goat is, after all, dead. But apparently some people haven't noticed yet. Maybe they think it's just sleeping or something. In such cases, it may help to wallop the corpse.

And sometimes walloping the corpse makes the situation clear in advance, such that a smooth-talker making the case that the goat is alive won't be persuasive.

"I've seen the goat. It didn't budge when Uncle Roy whacked it. Trust me, it's dead."

UPDATE: In response to comments asking about less "extreme" slippery slopes, I've written a follow-up post that applies the same strategy of thinking to the purported slippery slope from same-sex marriage to group marriages. Check it out here.


  1. Thanks for this Eric. And I am currently enjoying your "God's Final Victory" book.

    I've never really heard the "slippery slope" argument seriously applied to goats (or any other animal), but I have heard it applied to incest, polyamorous/polygamous, and inter-generational relationships. It seems to me, by your definition of slippery slope,

    "A "slippery slope" from one public policy decision to some extreme outcome exists if and only if your reasons for making the policy decision, were they accepted as sufficient, would also have to be regarded as sufficient for allowing the extreme outcome.)"

    that the reasons to allow same-sex relationships should also allow incest, polyamorous/polygamus, and inter-generational relationships. I think that is the real worry people have - not goat marriage.

    Basically, what I am saying is that I think this blog post could be much more useful if it addressed the more common and realistic slippery slope arguments and not the less common goat-arguments :)

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  3. I agree with Mark. Bestiality parallels are easy to refute, but how does the logic of this argument for SSM apply to incest?

  4. Hey all,

    Thanks for the comments.

    I was motivated in this post to dismantle an extremely bad argument for a slippery slope into bestiality because some people still offer it with all seriousness (as my student's report on her experience made clear to me). I have in the past walked through other, less outrageous versions of the slippery slope argument to show why the most compelling reasons for extending civil marriage to same-sex couples--the reasons that, in my view, should decisively shape public policy on this matter--don't produce a slippery slope towards group marriage or incest. I would think that the tools laid out in the post above could be readily employed to extend the refutation of slippery slopes beyond bestiality, but what is so apparent to me after years of rehashing these arguments in class and elsewhere is probably not apparent to others, so I will offer a follow up post in which I try to explain why the very same reasoning used to dismantle the Joe-and-his-goat argument works in the case of other purported slippery slopes as well. Polyamorists certainly have an interest in trying to piggy-back on the recent success of push for accepting same-sex marriage, and they may honestly think that the case for same-sex marriage offers a reason for the state to recognize group marriages of various forms as well. But they're wrong about this, for reasons that should be clear when one thinks for a minute about WHY Michele Bachmann is wrong when she claims that limiting marriage to heterosexual couples is NOT discriminatory.

    As to the issue of the state's interest in marriage, the reference to Rauch was (a) a reference to ONE of the reasons the state is in the marriage business, invoked for the purpose of quickly highlighting a crucially important disanalogy between any marriage between humans and the absurd interspecies weddings that are invoked by politicians to this day; and (b) a quick gesture towards a perspective that I develop more fully elsewhere.

    On the subject of the failure of current same-sex relationships to fit the model of monogamous marriage, there are several obvious points worth making. First, how many heterosexual relationships fail to fit this model? I don't mean heterosexual marriages. I mean heterosexual relationships. More significantly, the rate at which relationships fail to fit the marital model is surely going to be a function of access to the institution of marriage. If a sub-population has no access to that institution, then we would expect the normative power of that institution to have a weaker hold on that population. Patterns and habits that might have been shaped by this institution are instead shaped by its absence. That relationships in communities without access to marriage don't look like marriages as often is--in my judgment--a poor reason to continue to withhold marriage from those communities. It is analogous to William H Murray's argument, at the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, that blacks should not have access to higher education and should be trained as "blacksmiths and bootblacks" because they obviously lack the intellectual capacity to take advantage of higher education. I sometimes cause this the "cause-prescription fallacy." A problem that is exacerbated by policy X is used to justify perpetuating policy X (policy X is introduced as the prescription for a problem that policy X causes). It's not just a poor way to reason, but a mode of reasoning that has historically contributed to the perpetuation of oppressive and marginalizing social systems. I encourage everyone to become aware of when they're doing it, even unwittingly, and stop it immediately.

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    1. JD,

      I would encourage you to read some of the better self-reports of what it is like to grow up in a context where, although you are surrounded by examples of happily married couples (and grow up in family with married parents), you know that your culture excludes you from participation in this bedrock social institution and basic cultural model for regulating sexual expression. The sense of alienation that gays and lesbians feel when they realize that their sexuality is such that the culture's primary sexual and romantic norm shuts them out entirely...well, I have found it is powerful and poignant. A crucial influence in my own intellectual and spiritual journey with respect to this issue

      Or better than reading reports, sit down with some of your more articulate and reflective gay and lesbian neighbors and ask them to tell you about what it was like grow up with the understanding that they would never be able to participate in marriage themselves. And then set aside all your preconceptions and judgments and just listen. Just take in what they are saying without the filters of any of your agendas. Be there for them. Love's first act is attention, after all.

      If you do this, I think the mistake you make in the comment above should become obvious. But, at the risk of inspiring another rebuttal that misses the point (a point that is harder to miss if you follow my advice above), let me put it this way: There are different ways in which a sub-group can be excluded from marriage. In the case of gays and lesbians in our culture, it isn't through lack of exposure--obviously. It is through deliberate exclusion--exclusion from civil marriage, exclusion from religious marriage in their communities, exclusion form social recognition as married. Is it any wonder that some choose to denigrate the institution that they're not allowed access to, while others fall into habits of non-monogamous sexuality that become defining later in life, even when they wish it were otherwise?

      Is it at all surprising that a subculture that forms because they have been set to the margins by virtue of their sexuality...and explicitly set to the margins by a willful social exclusion from marriage...won't exhibit the same level of allegiance to the norms and values that marriage inculcates than do those who are from the first stirrings of their sexuality confident of their place within the social framework in which marriage plays so important a role?

      In this light, your rebuttal that gays and lesbians have lots of exposure to marital role models strikes me as staggeringly naive...which is why I recommend that you immerse yourself for awhile in the life stories of your gay and lesbian neighbors.

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    1. JD,

      With respect to the following: "I have lived among and heard the life stories of many gay and lesbian people, but I don't see that such exposure and empathetic listening should necessarily result in a revision of moral principles."

      Glad to hear it. I encouraged you to pursue such attention because aspects of your argument ignored features of the lived experiences of gays and lesbians which, in my experience, are pretty hard for those who have attended to that lived experience to ignore. Hence, I assumed that you had not so attended. Perhaps your failure to incorporate these features of LGBT experience into your reasoning has some other cause.

      "Is the good and the right defined as 'whatever provokes a strong empathetic response'?"


      "...abandonment or at least the attenuation of marital norms like two persons, permanence and exclusivity follows logically upon redefining marriage so that it is primarily about the emotional connection between adults."

      First, I think this is an easier thing to state than to adequately defend in the light of the battery of objections that I think are available. Second, there is a big difference between defining marriage such that it is "primarily about the emotional connection between adults" and defining it in terms of an intimate life partnership. I do the latter. And I think the concept of intimate life partnership (which includes an emotional connection but is defined by considerably more) has a value that is independent of "sexual differentiation" (which is not a necessary condition for the establishing of a life partnership, and is not a necessary precondition for a life partnership having value) and also independent of reproductive potential. Life partnership has instrumental value for reproductive pairs, but its value is obviously not restricted or limited to that instrumental value.

      Also, you seem to assume that the kind of commitment to another person that is characteristic of marriage ("permanence and exclusivity") has only derivative value--it can't be valuable for its own sake but only because of its service to something else (something bound up with "sexual differentiation and conjugal union"). My view is that monogamous life commitment can be intrinsically valuable.