The Problem and Appeal of the Slippery Slope
For nearly as long as I can remember, I have heard media pundits, teachers, and peers mention the slippery slope by name—not as a logical fallacy, but as the basis for an argument. As it happens, the slippery slope is one of the best-known and least-understood logical fallacies. What follows is devoted to explaining what the fallacy is, how it is erroneously deployed, and why it all matters.
Chances are that, like me, you’ve encountered a proud but erroneous use of the fallacy—if not from a teacher or relative, then perhaps from a political commentator online or on TV.
In August 2017, for instance, the Fox Business Network asked: “Taking down Confederate statues a slippery slope?” The show’s guest, former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, responded to the question with the following:
I think it’s . . . a matter of looking at which statues should we keep. Should we keep one of Thomas Jefferson? Al Sharpton says we ought to take it down. I mean, we ought to take down the Jefferson Memorial. . . . Where does it stop? Do we go ahead and just obliterate Mount Rushmore? . . . I just wonder, where does this stop?
This is a classic example of a slippery slope, a claim that one course of action ought to be rejected because it will inevitably produce an entirely different or tangentially related consequence.
What Huckabee is suggesting here is that the reasoning underlying the decision to tear down one type of monument would logically lead to tearing down other types of monuments. His unstated point seems to be: if we tear down the memorials of some racists from America’s past, then we will end up tearing down the memorials of all racists from America’s past.
But tearing down Confederate monuments does not necessarily mandate that we destroy Mount Rushmore any more than deciding to eat a cheeseburger for lunch mandates that I also eat a cheeseburger for dinner. “If I eat a cheeseburger for one meal, I will inevitably eat a cheeseburger for every meal. Who is to say where to draw the line?”
This is obviously fallacious reasoning, but it has a very strong appeal and rhetorical effect. Let’s consider its effect through a second, closely related example.
In November 2017, the National Review published an editorial titled “The Next Lost Cause” with the sub-header, “Why the slope from toppling Confederate monuments to shunning the Founders is so slippery.”
Here it is again. Just as Fox Business titles its segment after the logical fallacy, the National Review names and embraces the slippery slope as the foundation for an argument. The writer even opens by proudly announcing this shift:
For conservatives who pay attention, the slippery slope isn’t a logical fallacy, but a way of life. In our gloomy predictions, we regularly understate how far society will begin kicking us down the slope once we start sliding.
“The slippery slope isn’t a logical fallacy,” except it is. And the writer quickly commits the fallacy he claims to embrace.
He begins his thesis paragraph with a concession: “I don’t think it is controversial to speculate that those wanting to tear down Confederate memorials do so because they oppose white supremacy.” This cause, he argues, is reasonable. But then the writer locates a problem for critics of white supremacy: “The desire to see white supremacy toppled in the present will motivate anti-racists to expose its influence throughout American history. [why?] And the fact that the Founders gave America its long-lived institutions — its Constitution, its presidency, its courts — will no longer be seen as a reason to retain their monuments, but as the primary reason for tearing them down.” [again, why?]
Shortly after—as if the calls to remove Confederate monuments have actually been conflated with the removal of Founding Father memorials—he adds: “I do think America will lose something important when the Founders are judged too problematic to honor, even if by that point most Americans will judge the losses minor and the gains to be had irresistible.”
Well, OK. But who said anything about the Founders? How did we get from a question about Confederate monuments to a hypothetical in which anti-racists are combing through the racial sins of all of American history?
What about the Confederate monuments?
This is difficult terrain. The question of how to memorialize a nation’s past is hardly simple and invites many legitimate, reasonable perspectives. But the kind of quasi-reasoning outlined above—reasoning that embraces a slippery slope as its logical form—clouds our ability to deal with the core issues at hand.
To be fair, this writer’s imagined conclusion, like Mike Huckabee’s, is not necessarily, entirely wrong. In fact, there already have been calls to tear down statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and it is quite possible that, if and when most Confederate monuments are removed from public view, there will be renewed efforts to remove monuments of slaveholders from America’s past. This is and will continue to be a question for students of American history.
But the key problem here—the core problem of the slippery slope fallacy—is that these are not necessarily related actions: we are not compelled to remove a statue of George Washington because we have decided to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. They’re not the same person. They didn’t have the same beliefs. Their places in American history are not identical. It turns out that only one of them fought against the U.S. government for the preservation and growth of the chattel slave system.
If we remove the likeness of one, we do not have to remove the likeness of the other. We might decide later to take down a Washington statue, but that decision has no necessary relation to removing a statue of Lee. There is no equivalency here.
What both Huckabee and the National Review author suggest in effect is something they seem to believe but are not able to say outright. They both in effect argue that we should not remove statues of Robert E. Lee because we should not remove statues of George Washington. They defend Confederate monuments by diverting our attention to the far more sympathetic image of the Founders.
The slippery slope argues in reverse. A distant, unrelated or tangentially related action serves as the basis for discouraging the course of action under question. This prevents us from even beginning to think about the question in the first place.
Neither Huckabee nor the National Review writer has taken a minute to ponder: should we remove Confederate monuments? What would be the reasons—historical, political, ethical, economic—for or against their removal?
The key to even getting started on these questions is to forget about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or anyone not in the Confederacy.
If we want to have a grown-up conversation, we’re going to have to call the slippery slope what it is: a logical fallacy.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.