Slippery Slope Fallacy
The Slippery Slope fallacy, also known as the Camel’s Nose, is an argument that assumes that certain, usually extreme, consequences will inevitably occur as a result of one event or condition, based on a chain of cause of effect. The fallacy is usually used to argue against a decision, based on the idea that the decision in question will end up causing a 2nd event in the chain and that 2nd link a 3rd event, and so on until the inevitable disastrous conclusion. This fallacious idea (whether it is based on fact or conjecture) is meant to convince people not to go forward with the first step.
The Camel’s Nose metaphor showed up in a fable written in 1858 where an Arab miller allows a camel to peer its nose into his home, and before he realizes it, the entire camel’s body had made its way into his small dwelling. This fable most likely inspired a story in a 1915 book of fables by Horace Scudder. Mr. Scudder’s story was entitled The Arab and His Camel. The moral of this fable was: “It is a wise rule to resist the beginnings of evil.”
The Camel’s Nose has also been mentioned in relation to the phrase, “If you give someone an inch, they’ll take a mile.” This phrase originally showed up in a book of proverbs written in 1546 by John Heywood. At the time, it was the phrase, “give him an inch and he’ll take an ell,” an ell being a unit of measurement that was about 45 inches. The mile came in later as a result of exaggeration just to illustrate how far people will tend to go once the rules are loosened even just a little bit. In Russian, there’s a saying which can be translated, “offer him a finger, and he will bite a hand off up to the elbow.”
II. Slippery Slope Structure
The Slippery Slope argument tends to come up a lot whenever a seemingly radical proposal is put on the table — such as legalizing marijuana, euthanasia or stem cell research. For example, in discussions about legalizing marijuana for medical issues, people go down the slope when they suggest it could lead to the legalization of harder street drugs. Arguments for voluntary euthanasia end up going down the slope to involuntary euthanasia. And we wouldn’t want to let stem cell research lead to creating new species, would we? Many discussions tend to slide down a Slippery Slope.
The structure of this type of argument is as follows:
X is a position, not necessarily bad.
Y will inevitably happen because of X . . .
Z will inevitably happen because of Y . . .
. . . and so one until a disastrous conclusion.
Therefore, X should not be allowed in the first place.
Examples in Politics
In 2012, there was talk circulating around New York that they would ban certain sodas of a certain size. This was known as the Sugary Drinks Portion Cap Rule, or the Soda Ban. This was supported by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio. This led to freedom of choice debates. If they took away the large soft drinks, where would it end? Would they impose that servings of meat on sandwiches would be regulated as well? How about imposing curfews for health reasons? As a result of these arguments, the Soda Ban was inevitably thrown out.
As a result of the Charleston church shooting in 2015, another Slippery Slope argument came up concerning the removal of Confederate statues around the country. Where would it end? Would every statue and historical figure be scrutinized? Also, who would determine which statues would be removed, and for what reasons? The United States remains divided on this issue along race and party lines, and inevitably, it has been left up to the states to decide which ones to remove.
Examples in Film and Literature
In the 1991 comedy What About Bob? starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, Bill Murray plays Bob Wiley, a mentally ill patient of Dr. Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss). Despite Dr. Leo Marvin’s stern personal rule that he does not fraternize with patients outside of work, Bob forces his way into Dr. Marvin’s life at Dr. Marvin’s vacation home with him and his family. Bob ends up loved by the townspeople as well as by Dr. Marvin’s family, much to the doctor’s chagrin. Meanwhile, Dr. Marvin actually ends up in a catatonic state as a result of all of the chains of events set off when he loosened his rule. Dr. Marvin has fallen down a Slippery Slope.
In Laura Numeroff’s children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, there’s an excellent illustration of the Slippery Slope and the phrase, “. . . give someone an inch, and they’ll take a mile.” “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. When you give him the milk, he’ll probably ask you for a straw. When he’s finished, he’ll ask you for a napkin, then he’ll want to look in the mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache. When he looks into the mirror, he might notice that his hair needs a trim…etc.” Therefore (it is implied), you’d best not give a mouse a cookie.
IV. How to Defuse a Slippery Slope Fallacy
First, consider how likely it is that the chain of events would actually occur. Is A really going to lead to B, and then is B going to lead to C, and so on? If it is highly unlikely that events B, C and beyond are going to happen the way the arguer predicts they will, and you can argue against those links effectively, do so. This way you don’t fall into the trap of arguing about the extreme conclusion, which is not even likely to occur.
For example, perhaps you have a rule that you don’t give out spare change to homeless people on the street. If so, you probably reason that giving spare change to everyone who approaches you could end up with you giving away all your money. To argue against this reasoning, one could consider the chances that you’ll be approached by that many homeless people within a short period of time. And do the math. How many homeless people would you need to give change to every day to make you poor? Are you really going to give away enough money to hurt you if you give spare change to one person, or even two or three in a day?