Saturday, September 30, 2017

Slippery slopes in the gay marriage debate

One of the increasingly common concerns voiced in the gay marriage debate is one of unintended consequences and – in particular – slippery slopes. The thrust of slippery slope arguments is that a policy change (that may seem okay if it is just considered in isolation) will actually lead over time to a dire situation, and that it will be difficult for us to prevent this slide into catastrophe.

We often hear commentators scoffing at these arguments, as if they were nothing more than a sneaky rhetorical ploy. And sometimes it is true that an appeal to a slippery slope argument is the last resort of a debater who has becoming convinced that the argument cannot be won on its merits alone.

But the fact remains that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these arguments. Slippery slope arguments can be true, valid and even decisive. Public policies do have unintended consequences in the short term, and can lead to situations that are not easy to avoid or undo. To find out whether a given slippery slope argument is fallacious, it must be analysed on the merits.

In this post, I intend to do just that, and to consider the merits of the slippery slope argument, and its application in the context of gay marriage.

The slippery slope argument
Making a slippery slope argument involves justifying three separate premises.
  1. Having made this policy change, further changes will subsequently occur, perhaps with or without explicit political decision-making or electoral control;
  2. It will be difficult to stop those changes, or reverse the policy, at a later point.
  3. These further changes will lead to a dire situation.
If these three premises can be vindicated, then the slippery slope argument is both valid and sound.

The ‘dire situation’
Sometimes it turns out that the slippery slope argument falters at Premise 3. A social change may gradually occur whereby the ‘dire situation’ – from the new perspective, caused in part by the original change – actually doesn’t look so bad after all.

It is true that this can sometimes be a worry, and that new practices may normalize behaviour that should have remained morally concerning. But there are countless examples where the reverse turns out to be true, and when society plainly improves because of what it has learned and re-thought on the basis of the initial policy change.
For example, when the rights of man were first declared in America and France in the eighteenth century, some wondered where such declarations might lead – Votes for the poor? Votes for those in minority religions? Votes for colonized people? Votes for women? Those who warned of the slippery slope to universal suffrage (voting rights for all adults) turned out to be absolutely right. The more that the franchise was extended to responsible, rational adults, the more it seemed reasonable and fair to extend it to the remaining groups of responsible, rational adults.

In this case, even though the slippery slope warnings turned out to be true, nowadays the idea of universal suffrage is a consensus moral position, held across the political spectrum. Having arrived at the ‘dire situation’, the entire citizenry has decided that not only is the situation not dire at all – but it is a very good thing, and indeed something of a profound achievement by our civilization.
Why won’t we be able to stop at a sensible place?
Premise 2 is usually where the argument is at its weakest. If the slippery slope argument is to convince people who would otherwise allow the policy change to happen, then it needs to function in a context where, a) many would agree that the change itself is okay, but, b) they are deeply worried about the prospect of the dire situation.

But if that really is the case, then it is hard to see why this very fact will not make it possible to stop the changes at an appropriate point in the future. This is why most slippery slope arguments made in the context of democratic decision-making are seriously flawed. If there is a sizable amount of the voting population that is happy about the current policy change, but is worried about the dire situation, then why can’t electoral pressure be used to draw a line at the point where the majority of the electorate believe things have gone too far?

In some cases, the proponent of the slippery slope argument may have something very important to say here. They may be able to point out that the policy change actually shifts the manner in which future political decisions will be made, or that the policy change will shift enormous amounts of power (political power, media power, social power or – in the scariest situation – raw military power) in such a way as to dramatically alter whether it will be possible to slow, stop or reverse course in the future.
Consider a policy change that redraws voting districts, where any future decisions about this issue would be made by leaders elected on the basis of those new districts. In this case, the policy change in question alters the context in which future decision-making takes place, making future changes more likely, even as they make it harder for an opposition group to get into power and reverse course.

Another example would be a practice of appeasement against a military aggressor – where by the time it becomes clear that the military aggressor cannot be appeased, the opportunity to prevent their consolidation of power has been lost.
This does mean that slippery slope arguments are always sound in these contexts – but it does mean they should be taken very seriously.

However, I submit that the vote to give same sex couples the power to legally wed is not analogous to these sorts of examples. It does not mark a shift in the nature of political decision-making in any way that will make it difficult for future majorities to respond to policy changes happening in other areas, such as in education, or with respect to free speech or freedom of religion. In each of these cases, and on each of these issues, electoral majorities have proved to be pretty good at getting their way in the end. They have political representation, access to a free press, the capability to mount social media campaigns, and so on.
In other words, I agree it is possible that the change in allowing same sex marriage will have some undesirable future consequences in some context or other. This is true of gay marriage, because it is true of absolutely all changes in law – and indeed of all decisions not to change the law when the social/political/economic context is itself changing. Unintended consequences are just a brute fact about human societies and social decision-making.

However, the legal change to empower same-sex marriage will not alter the ways in which future electorates will be able to give effect to their views about what is, and what is not, socially desirable. If undesirable policies do arise in terms of future education, free speech or freedom of religion, then the electorate will be in a position to do something about it.

For this reason, I think we have good reason to reject slippery slope arguments on this matter, at least and until a persuasive case can be given that shows specifically how the three above-noted premises (and Premise 2 in particular) can be justified.
One final problem with slippery slope arguments
One final concern with slippery slope arguments may not be that they are false or untrue. To the contrary, they may be valid and sound – but still not be sufficient to sway our decision-making on the matter. Howso?

Simply, the slippery slope argument does not make the case for the original issue go away. It just adds an extra consideration to the mix. Even if valid, there is no guarantee that the risks of the slippery slope are morally more important than the initial policy change itself.

So there are two reasons debaters dislike slippery slope arguments being used by their opponents. One is because it can take a lot of time to work through all the new factual and moral claims that would be required to vindicate (or rebut) the slippery slope argument. And in most cases, the result is unlikely to be anything more definitive than assessing the balancing of probabilities one way or the other.
But the other reason slippery slope arguments are problematic is that they distract attention from the central issue at hand. It is one thing to demand that decision-makers pay heed to potential knock-on consequences and other risks. But it is another for those concerns to so dominate the discussion that people wind up somehow forgetting that the law will also have direct and immediate consequences.

In this case, the main, direct effect of the law is that it will empower a certain group of couples in committed and loving relations to formalize and celebrate their love and commitment in just the same way as other couples in their society do. That is the one change we can absolutely guarantee will happen. While it is worth taking slippery slope arguments seriously enough to consider them on the merits, it is never worth losing sight of the actual direct change that will occur, and the justice and legitimacy that may reside in that change.

(This post is one in a series, looking at the arguments in the gay marriage debate.)  

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