ethical slang for a course of action, once initiated, which inevitably leads to an unethical or immoral conclusion; often used by pro-lifers, but also by despots

Common topics referred to when talking about a slippery slope are censorship, abortion, taxes, religion, politics, education, welfare.

The underlying problem is that it is often very difficult to figure out exactly how much control to place on a certain subject - too much, and it's over regulated and will ultimately fail, ala the Russian economy under communism; too little and anarchy emerges.

True examples of slippery slopes:

income tax - see write-up. hell, taxes in general
gun control - Registration often leads to confiscation, no matter what politicians may promise (of course, depending on your views, this could be a good thing)
social security number - it was originally intended and promised as only for social security - try living in the US without giving yours out nowadays
self-regulation - corporations love the idea but (as much as i hate to say it) it doesn't seem to work (see right to privacy)
ratings - they start out advisory only but politicians seem to like the idea of making them mandatory
censorship - radical feminists backed censorship laws in Canada to get rid of evil porn - guess whose books started getting grabbed by customs officers?

There's got to be others, and this is pretty North America-centered - any others?

Slippery slope refers to a type of argument in which a number of premises are given, each one slowly moving closer to the desired conclusion. But because not every premise is certain, the conclusion is not as certain as the person making the argument would have you believe.

A therefore B
B therefore C
C therefore D
D therefore SOMETHING VERY, VERY BAD!!!
So, Not D. So Not C. So I guess we have to give up B too. And that means no A. Sorry.

Also called "camel's nose in the tent"

Here's a made up example:

  • If we don't stop the Communists in South Vietnam, they'll take over the whole country.
  • If they take over Vietnam, next they'll conquer Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.
  • Once they have Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand--then they'll overrun Indonesia and the rest of the Pacific Rim.
  • Once they conquer the Pacific Rim, they'll take Japan--and the next thing you know, they'll be off the coast of California!
  • implicit: Communists invading California is unacceptable.
  • explicit: We must stop the Communists in South Vietnam.


Slippery slope is also used to refer to any behavior or rationalization which seems harmless at first, but will become harmful if it continues. Drug use, for example, can be done responsibly, but with increased tolerance and increased acceptance of drug use, small doses become large and 'soft' drugs become hard drugs.

Slippery slope is more likely to be used in reference to complex moral issues (war, animal testing, etc.) then drug use; it's a way of saying that once you start any behavior of a dubious type, more and more morally unsound behaviors will be easier and easier to rationalize.

Slippery slope arguments come up all the time in legal discourse. As I'm finishing my first year of law school this week, I've already had to deal with more slippery slopes than Picabo Street. Lawyers engaged in the practice of appellate advocacy make and take slippery slopes on a regular basis: it's practically part of their job description.

Fortunately for those of us who find such arguments silly (I raise my hand here), you can take on a slippery slope in three ways (credit to Kenney Hegland of Arizona for pointing these out):

  1. Turn the slope around.

    Like mountains, issues generally have multiple slippery slopes. If your opponent says that your argument is likely to lead down a slippery slope, you can usually respond that their argument would also lead down a slippery slope.

    Abortion is a good example. Slippery slope 1: If you legalize it, babies will be killed left and right, people will be encouraged to have unprotected sex which will lead to STD's all over the place, God will get angry, and the world will end. Slippery slope 2: If you illegalize it, poor women will be pulling fetuses out of themselves with coathangers in rat-infested back alleys while rich women are flying to mountaintop clinics in Switzerland where they can enjoy a nice hot tub and massage after their abortion, God will get angry, and the world will end. If you're particularly creative, you can probably come up with a slippery slope for any policy choice in between.
     
  2. Stick something in the ground to break the fall.

    A real slope doesn't have to take you all the way to the bottom of the mountain. Rhetorical slopes are no exception.

    "Yes," you might argue in response to the abortion rights advocate's slippery slope, "but we can mitigate that effect by working through the United Nations to create an international regime that protects the rights of the unborn, thus eliminating the effect of..." Or, conversely, "Yes, but the spread of STD's would still be halted by the common fear of contracting an STD; the only practical difference would be a reduction in the number of unwanted pregnancies..." You get the picture.
     
  3. Argue that falling down the slope wouldn't be that bad.

    "So what if we make God angry? We always make Him angry. He hasn't smitten us yet. Why would He start all of a sudden?"
So give slippery slopes the treatment they deserve. Rhetoric will thank you.

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