Public health measures during a pandemic (like lockdowns and mask mandates) can make some people uneasy. One argument that seems to underlie this anxiety is “masks now, government surveillance via microchip-containing vaccines later.” This is known as a slippery slope argument.
This type of argument begins with a perfectly benign-looking action and leads us down a fuzzy, slippery path toward a catastrophic conclusion. “If we allow this to happen,” we are told, “where might this all end?” In skeptical circles, this is frequently called an error in logic (or logical fallacy), although it turns out that this type of argument can be perfectly kosher.
When we try to define exactly what a slippery slope argument looks like, it turns out the definition is, well, slippery. Philosophers have tried to drill down and really characterize this type of argument from its head to its tail, the way an anatomist might open up a dead new life form to understand how it works, and we would do well when we spot one in the wild to do the same: to stretch it out and really see if it holds up.
Slippery slope arguments often rear their head where new technologies are being considered, like gene editing (the possibility of swapping a bad gene for a functional gene in order to cure someone of a specific disease). Here’s how the argument goes. Should we allow gene editing? Well, a critic would say, if we do allow it, there will be a series of consequences. In the beginning, they will appear benign, but the further down we go, the worse they will get. We have control over this issue now, but at some point we will lose this control and we cannot tell in advance when this will happen. But once we lose control, it will be too late. We will end up with a catastrophic ending: allowing rich parents who can afford the technology to design their baby for traits like hair colour, height, and testosterone levels, which will increase socioeconomic disparities. Therefore, we should never allow gene editing. Otherwise, we will inevitably chart a course toward eugenics.
The example of gene therapy highlights a slippery slope argument that is neither absurd nor necessarily correct, but one that requires a deep discussion. There are real slippery slopes out there: for example, we have seen that allowing integrative medicine into hospitals under the excuse that it will promote better eating and exercise habits leads to the adoption of magical thinking like Reiki and homeopathy. And then there are slippery slopes that are the products of grand conspiracy theories, like the claim that Bill Gates wants to inject us with microchips so that governments can limit our movements.
We encounter slippery slope arguments when we talk about assisted dying (what if it leads to killing people who can’t consent?), gun control (what if it leads to the government taking away all of my guns?), and same-sex marriage (what next: a man marrying his dog?… which did sort of unofficially happen!). Some slippery slopes are real; some are plausible; some are completely made up. The solution is to think through the slope, step by step, to see if this icy path truly and realistically leads to disaster.