The problem with slippery slope arguments

I’m not on twitter, as I previously mentioned here, but that still doesn’t stop some of it still getting through. My friend, Dave Williams, posted a blog apparently defending another post of mine against an interesting critique. It is amazing what still get through because the criticism wasn’t even on my own twitter feed, but under someone else’s who have retweeted it. Dave apparently got into a discussion on that feed and then I only saw anything about it because he decided to write up a longer form blog post about it. Fun times.

You can read Dave’s post here if you want. I don’t have any intention of getting into that particular discussion. People can be saying whatever they want on twitter; I still don’t have a hankering to come back on. But what Dave’s post did prompt in my mind is some thinking about slippery slope arguments more generally.

What is fascinating about slippery slope arguments is not that there is no slope that one might slide on down – it is of course possible that one might incrementally head down a troubling path – it’s that they miss the point that one hasn’t actually done that. Slippery slope arguments insist that this is dangerous because of where it might lead. What they give away is that this is necessarily no problem because it is not where we fear it might end up. If where we might end up is the problem (and it may well be), being at the top of a slope miles away from it isn’t actually an issue because we are not there.

It may well be that the person suggesting there is a slippery slope is just warning there is a potential danger. And it’s good to aware of potential dangers, so long as we don’t let a potential danger stop us at that point. After all, everything is potentially dangerous. The issue is whether we have taken no account of the dangers and actually plunged headlong into whatever the problematic thing is. But if all someone is doing is saying to be careful because an acceptable thing might lead to an unacceptable thing, that’s fine. It’s just not a reason to prohibit the acceptable thing because it might have some danger associated with it.

But that isn’t usually what is going on. What slippery slope proponents are usually saying is this is a problem of itself because this might well lead to that. So, there is a wrong thing over there, but we are also going to brand the numerous other perfectly acceptable positions before you get there as wrong too because they are “dangerous”. To keep you from sliding into what is wrong, we are going to brand a whole load of other stuff to be wrong to make sure you definitely don’t get there.

Interestingly, there was a group of people in the Bible who used to think like this. Jesus, however, did not praise the Pharisees for keeping everyone as far away from sin as possible but, instead, rebuked them for laying burdens on people that were not required of them. In fact, Jesus seemed to frequently blast through their slippery slope, fencing of the fences – particularly in relation to things like the Sabbath – to really lay it on thick. The essence of pharisaism is insisting what is not sin is sin when God has not said it so.

This is the heart of slippery slope arguments. In a bid to make sure that nobody ends up in what is sinful, they insist what is not sin is unacceptable. It is unacceptable, they aver, because it might lead you into sin. So, to keep you from actual sin, we will call wrong what scripture either does not proscribe or, in some cases, actively calls good.

Now, there is nothing wrong with noting a regular trajectory that often takes place. So, it is perfectly legitimate to point to a pattern that shows those who have taken position X have often ended up at position Y. I think that is a reasonable observation. But we cannot overlook or ignore when people insist, but I am not okay with Y and have no intention of going there! Of course, if someone does end up at Y and such is sinful, we have every right to say ‘I told you so’ and ‘I warned you this would happen’. We can even say, if Y is properly sinful – in that scripture actually says one should not do or affirm it – that we can no longer have fellowship over it, or whatever. But what we can’t do is argue that because someone is at X – which the Bible says is fine – we will write them off as unbiblical when the bible itself doesn’t. It is that reflex which is pharisaism.

The big issue with slippery slope arguments is that there is a point on the proverbial slope that is actually a problem. The issue is not that there is a danger we might slip and fall – though it is always worth being careful about that – but rather that we actually do what the Bible says not to do. There is a point on the slope where we have crossed a boundary. It is usually, when people make the argument, the very bottom of the slope. Which means, ultimately, where we are on the slope that is not at the bottom – holding the actual view scripture says we ought not – there isn’t actually a problem.

All of which is to say, slippery slope arguments are a bit… slippery. There isn’t really a slope, so much as a flat with various holes we may fall into at different points. We are either in the sin-holes or we are on the path. Some of us may edge closer to some of the holes than others – and we’ll all have different ones we’re more likely to fall into than others – but the issue is whether we actually fall into them or not. Might we want to note the danger? For sure. We may even want to take some precautions sometimes because we know that certain holes are more likely to cause us to fall in than others. But the issue is ultimately this: did you fall in or not?

I prefer this analogy because it is closer to the scriptural language of falling. I think there is a reason the bible speaks of falling rather than sliding. Indeed, you don’t see sliding towards sin anywhere. You do see falling into sin a lot. You see people either falling into sin or faithfully pursuing holiness. There isn’t much about people who aren’t in sin getting a bit close to the edge of a slippery slope that they might, possibly, slide all the way down. We are told, however, to be careful lest we fall. But the issue seems to be with falling down. We are either in sin or we’re not. We’re either walking with Christ or we’ve fallen. Making sure people don’t do certain things that are not sin in order to make sure they don’t do other things that are sin – especially when those the former are not leading the person into the latter – is the stuff of the pharisees.

If someone is in sin, by all means call it out. If you think someone is unwisely heading towards sin, it is legitimate to point out the potential danger. But we need to stop arguing for slippery slopes because it is just another way of saying something that is legitimate must be sinful because we have determined – quite apart from scripture – there is some potential for sin down the track. It is dressed up pharisaism and is, ultimately, adding to God’s word. We should stop it.