theonlinecitizen

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Beware the Slippery Slope!

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 9, 2007

By Choo Zheng Xi

What do Yoda, Vivian Balakrishnan, Yvonne Lee, and ex-CJ Yong have in common?

No, this isn’t the opening line of a dirty joke. All of the abovementioned characters are guilty of having used a form of logical deduction known as the ‘slippery slope’ argument. It’s a line of reasoning that works as such: if we allow A to happen, we will be taking the first step down the slippery slope of allowing B, C and D to happen too.

Remember Yoda’s warning: ‘Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering’? Classic slippery slope.

Vivian Balakrishnan, who was a debator in his college days, took a page out of Yoda’s book to deploy this rhetorical tactic in Parliament. Commenting on bartop dancing, he noted:

“If you want to dance, some of us will fall off that bar-top. Some people will die as a result of liberalising bar-top dancing, not just because they have fallen off the bar-top. Because usually a young girl, with a short skirt, dancing on a bar-top, may attract some insults from some other men, and the boyfriend starts fighting. Some people will die. Blood will be shed for liberalising this policy. While I support the liberalisation of the policy, I also want all of us to be aware that there is a price to be paid for liberty.”

Thankfully, little blood has yet been shed for the government’s bold steps in deregulating bartop dancing. Perhaps Dr Vivian was being too pessimistic in his somber projections?

Here’s yet another slippery slope argument, this time by PAP MP Denise Phua during the elections last year – as reported by channelnewsasia:

“In this movie starring Singaporeans, called ‘The Days After’, based on what will happen if you put more and more opposition members into Parliament, this is what the scene will look like. ‘The Days After’ — the analysts will rate our political risk very high, it’ll be negative; the stock market will tumble; potential investors will hold back their investments; current business will seriously think about moving business out of Singapore.”

In the recent ministerial pay hike debate, MM Lee offered the public a particularly steep slippery slope to contemplate: a failure to raise ministerial pay might lead to shoddy characters being elected into Parliament, which would lead to economic collapse, and eventually, our womenfolk being exported as foreign domestic labour. One wonders why this doomsday scenario didn’t occur in the days before ministers were paid as well.

The Slippery Slope And The Law

Perhaps we can permit our politicians a dose of occasional scaremongering. But you might be slightly worried to realize that our legal scholars and judges occasionally indulge in it too. You might be especially concerned if it is relevant to our basic rights guaranteed under the constitution.

Section 14 (1) of our Constitution guarantees that

(a) every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression;

(b) all citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms; and (c) all citizens of Singapore have the right to form associations.

However, Section 14 (2) allows these rights to be circumscribed:

Parliament may by law impose —

(a) on the rights conferred by clause (1)(a), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence.

Now this in itself is not remarkable: even the freest of democracies realise that no rights are absolute, and legislatures have the power to pass laws circumscribing these rights.

Sadly, good ol’ Slippery Slope is trotted out as a justification for circumscribing many of our rights, and really, sometimes these arguments are downright weak.

In his judgment on Dr Chee Soon Juan’s abortive 2002 Labour Day protest, our then Chief Justice Yong Pung How offered the following slippery slope justification for circumscribing Dr Chee’s rights:[2]

“The opening of the Istana grounds on Labour Day was a highly visible event with strong public participation. Indeed, there were close to 5,300 people in the grounds on the day of the offence. It did not take a great stretch of imagination to conclude that a political rally in the grounds that day could have resulted in a threat to public order and safety”.

With all due respect to the then Chief Justice, in the context of our famed Singaporean orderliness and respect for the law, it really does take quite a stretch of imagination to see a political rally on the Istana grounds of a sort that would result in a threat to ‘public order and safety’. Kudos to his creativity.

Perhaps the silliest slippery slope argument to date is the bunch of comical assertions recently put forward by Assistant Professor Yvonne Lee from NUS Law School (writing in her personal capacity)[3].

Singaporean society, she says, is generally conservative and has always been respectful of religious sensitivities. Therefore we should not abolish 377a. To do so would open the door to legalizing paedophilia and bestiality, lead to reverse persecution of religious leaders, and generally undermine family values. Sadly for her, her first premise exposes the fallacy of her slippery slope argument: it is precisely because our society is a conservative one respectful of religious sensitivities that her doomsday scenario is that much quackery.

Context: The Achilles Heel of The Slippery Slope

Deductive logic, if honestly utilized, is a powerful intellectual tool. However, the problem is that many of these lines of reasoning happily discard the context within which they operate. As shown in the course of this article, any idea, taken to its most negative logical extreme, can be construed as potentially apocalyptic. Public figures owe us at least intellectual integrity of honest and realistic projections in decision making.

So here’s a simple rule of thumb to help you pull apart badly constructed slippery slope arguments and strengthen your own: it all boils down to context.

Keep this in mind the next time a politician, academic with an impressive sounding title, or even jedi master offers you a slippery slope argument that projects disaster.

About the author: Choo Zheng Xi is currently a Law Student at NUS. He is seeking help to publish this article in full or in part in a newspaper. Any assistance would be much appreciated

References:

[1] Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Parliamentary debate on Stayers and Quitters, 1st October 2002

[2] Chee Soon Juan v Public Prosecutor, [2003] 2 SLR 445

[3] Straits Times, 4 May 2007, Review Section


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20 Responses to “Beware the Slippery Slope!”

  1. inspir3d said

    hi, good essay i enjoyed this one

  2. logikal said

    i wish you were in the position to quantify the collateral damages on society and or on the individual psyche otherwise, your reductive reasoning is equally as slippery, at least from the perspective of authorities.

    at worse, your argument is bothering on contextual slide of hand that may ultimately snuff out the flame but at best, encourage more creative diversification and alternative experimentation of questionable alliances which may not necessarily be bad depending on which focus lens applied.

  3. Leounheort said

    It’s a creditable essay, but I need to point a couple of things out.

    The slippery slope is not a deductive argument. A simple deductive argument is generally characterised by three statements: a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. For example:

    1. All wines are beverages.
    2. Chardonnay is a wine.
    3. Therefore, Chardonnay is a beverage.

    The major premise is a general statement. The minor premise is a more specific one. The conclusion links both statements together. More complex arguments have multiple major and minor premises, and sub-conclusions, before arriving at a final conclusion. Since every idea is shown to lead to a conclusion, it is ‘deductive’. Deductive arguments are indeed powerful intellectual tools, because they show explicitly how one idea leads to another, and how they are all linked to provide a final result. This is not a feature of the slippery slope.

    In fact, the slippery slope argument isn’t. It is actually called the ‘slippery slope fallacy’ in some circles, because it is illogical. This argument states that A will lead to B, which will lead to C, which will lead to D, and so on. For example:

    The driver of Archduke Ferdinand took a wrong turn. By doing so, he allowed his assasins to shoot the Archduke. This assasination caused Austria-Hungary and Serbia to go to war. This exploded into the First World War. Following the defeat of the Central Powers, the Treaty of Versailles was signed to punish the aggressors, Germany in particular. Germany’s economy was shattered by the terms of the Versailles Treaty, made worse by its poor government. This allowed Adolf Hitler to take power, and start World War II. The defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan gave way to a new war: the Cold War. Therefore, the driver of Archduke Ferdinand was responsible for starting the Cold War.

    The slippery slope fallacy is labelled as such because it does not show a logical progression. Take this example: the driver turning the wrong way. This does not automatically lead to Ferdinand getting shot, because someone else pulled the trigger. And that person might not have been responsible for the First World War, because ultimately, it was the governments of Austria-Hungary and Serbia at that time, and not the assasin, that declared war. And so on and so forth.

    Similarly, by examining the above-mentioned speakers, we can see the same thing. They did not show how one event would logically lead to another. Instead, all they have done is put forth one assertion after another, some of which are, quite frankly, at incredibility’s edge. I’m not at all surprised that Balakrishnan did it: debaters at all levels are known for throwing up such arguments.

    The low-end ones, anyway.

    So, while this is a decent essay, the main problem with it is that you have mistaken a slippery slope argument/fallacy for a deductive argument. Hope this helps.

  4. The slippery slope that one builds, does not make the builder immune to it’s negative impact.

  5. Hi Leounheort,

    Thanks for the explanation. 🙂

    I think in this case, perhaps the gist of the article is more important than maybe the semantics? But nonetheless, it’s good to know how WW1 started. :))

    Regards,
    Andrew

  6. Leounheort said

    Logikal,

    I have a couple of points to bring up.

    Firstly, what do you mean by your point on quantifying collateral damage? I do not believe that the writer has actually explicitly stated any kind of ‘collateral damage’. It is not his responsibility to elaborate on a point he didn’t made. So, having him quantify this so-called collateral damage is not logical.

    Even if he did, he hasn’t employed any reductive reasoning. Reductive reasoning is the explanation of complex effects through a simple cause. What he has done is to show the logical fallacies made by members of the Government, Parliament, judiciary, and a university. He has done this by exploring the key assertions of their arguments and showing why they are just that: assertions. This cannot be reductive reasoning, for he has proposed neither cause nor effect of something or another. Therefore, you misrepresent him.

    In addition, you have implied that ‘the authorities’, too, employ reductive reasoning. This is not reductive reasoning. The slippery slope fallacy tries to show how something leads to something, which leads to something else. Reductive reasoning looks at the final ‘something’, and tries to ascertain the initial, simple, cause. Because of this difference in methodology, reductive reasoning is not the same as the slippery slope fallacy. Therefore, you misrepresent the authorities, too.

    Secondly, what do you mean by the entirety of your second argument? Let me to take it into three parts for easier reading.

    Firstly, what is this ‘argument’ you are referring to? What the writer is doing here is to show that certain members of the Government, Parliament, judiciary and a university have, in fact, committed a logical fallacy known as the slippery slope argument. This, I believe, he has done satisfactorily. But he has no made no argument. What he has done is to analyse what these people have said, then declare that they are logical fallacies. Through analysis, he has realised that those speeches fall into the category of ‘slippery slope argument’. This article is, to the best of my opinion, an affirmation of fact. An argument pushes for something, based on a personal belief, and is therefore coloured by personal bias. While the article may be driven by personal beliefs, the cornerstones of this article, i.e. the speeches, are not. They are, as I have explained earlier, logical fallacy. A fallacy is a fallacy no matter how many ways you look at one; so a logical fallacy is objective. This exposure of logical fallacies therefore does not constitute an argument in itself, certainly not in my opinion.

    Secondly, what is this ‘contextual sleight of hand’? If you are referring to the aspect of this article that refers to context, then I must disagree. It is not ‘sleight of hand’; it is simply analysis. What he is saying is that we must look at the context of that argument. So, if one says that an action will spark religious riots in Singapore, you need to see if that person has accounted for the context of Singapore, i.e. our multiracial, multireligious nature. There is no ‘sleight of hand’ here, so please clarify what you mean by that.

    Thirdly, what do you mean by ‘ultimately snuff out the flame but at best, encourage more creative diversification and alternative experimentation of questionable alliances which may not necessarily be bad depending on which focus lens applied’? Please elaborate on this, because it is very difficult to fanthom your logics and your arguments.

    Logikal, please explain your arguments to the fullest, or at least to the point where we can understand your logics. That way, I believe, we can actually go somewhere with our points and beliefs.

  7. Leounheort said

    Celluloidrealitys,

    definitely so. It’s just one more reason I don’t let my team use a slippery slope, or resort to one myself.

  8. Leounheort said

    Theonlinecitizen,

    you’re welcome.

    …Well, I guess you can tell that I got a bit carried away. Still, since I agree completely with the gist of his article, i.e. certain people have made slippery slope arguments, and how to spot them, and have nothing much more to add on that bit, I thought that it would be better if I touched on semantics instead. In fact, I usually don’t touch on semantics, unless it’s pretty glaring or forms the basis of an argument. You might have noticed by the fact that I didn’t say that ‘debater’ is the actual spelling for ‘debator’, the latter being a mistake that a lot of people, debaters included, make. That I did touch on semantics here means that there’s not much else that can be improved here, content-wise anyway.

    But I think the last part was lost in articulation…

    Oh well.

  9. CZX said

    Hey inspir3d, glad you liked it.

    Leounheort, thanks for the clarification on deductive reasoning. Point well taken.

  10. Luna said

    If anyone is interested in knowing more about the art of argument and the various logical errors we commonly make, I strongly recommend this site Candle In The Dark.

  11. Hi Luna,

    Thanks for the recommendation. An interesting read.. 🙂

  12. Ned Stark said

    “The writer condemns PM Lee’s statements at the risk of him and his children having to fight the terrorists on the streets of Singapore tomorrow. ”

    Yet another slippery slope argument here

  13. Ned Stark said

    My post seems to have disappeared. Does anyone know what happened?

  14. Hi Ned,

    Sorry about that. Your previous comment was caught in the spam folder. I have no idea why… 😦

    Apologies.

  15. […] there are many loopholes in the writer’s argument, including and not limited to the renowned slippery slope; which is seen in this […]

  16. passerby said

    “An Opposition without rights is a people without rights.

    A people without rights is a people bullied and humiliated.

    A people bullied and humiliated will find no loyalty and patriotism to the state.”

    SDP’s slippery slope.

    Do you agree?

  17. mediocre audience said

    Mr Choo is a rising STAR for CLEAR THINKING & TRANSPARENT ECONOMIC GOVERNANCE. Every nation needs Minister of this calibre. It is my good luck to learn of this concise Affirmation of Facts. Legal studies seems to eliminate mediocre thinking. More lawyers rather than generals are required for politics.
    Mr Leounheort should be the President if he has “HEART” instead of “heort”. He has CLEAREST THINKING to impose an Effective Balance & Check on any UnCLEAR Thinking in Parliament before the nation goes down the drain or “long kang”. What appears to be right at the beginning is only the intial reactive symtoms and they are NO GUARANTEE to FUTURE SUCCESS.
    This is the only wonderful thing about politics in the World.
    Politics on earth is about making an Empty Promise to be proven Empty at the end of the Terms. And Politicians can have good times and excellent income during the terms and are not accountable to mistakes and damages that turned out at the end of the terms. No wonder nowadays the political turbs are extremely well restricted and protected all over the World.
    May be I also learned a “Slipery Slope”, politician all over the World advise every World citizen to be an entrepreneur but they themselves stick to politics all the times. I see now that this is the Diversion Politics advising others to die economically and playing themselves SAFELY Economically.
    It sounds like everything we hear these days are lies!!!
    White lies, Blue lies, Green lies, Yellow lies, Red lies, Black lies.
    Many monks always warned that “Liars will die traggic deaths and be retributed to HELL”.
    Are the monks also telling lies!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
    Where is Hell? and Where is Heaven?

    If Mr Leounheort confirmed that Mr Choo had made an Affirmation of Facts [BIG WORDS that I NEVER use in my LIFE!], WHY WHY WHY is that Mr Choo cannot publish his Affirmation of Facts in the newspapers [BIG WORDS AGAIN]? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY?
    If these politician have made Mistakes about FACTS, WHY they cannot be INFORMED and are NOT REQUIRED TO CORRECT such MISTAKES about FACTS and put the FACTs STRAIGHT?????? WHY WHY WHY???
    ……………………………..
    I am getting VERY CONFUSED …..

    Just wonder, are there any FACTS available in this World nowadays?
    Are they all “Slipery Slopes” ????? HOW? HOW HOW?? HOW HOW HOW???

    For goodness sake, we need Mr Choo and Mr Leounheort to be POLITICIANs. Why NOT? The money is good and you are not accountable when the citizens become POORER.

    Anyway, all the World Politicians became RICHER during the 1997 Financial Crisis while the World citizens including unlucky entrepreneurs became very much POORER. I hope this is NOT a Slippery Slope…..

  18. Slippery Hee Hee said

    Which FACTS have been affirmed?
    The so called talents have mediocre thinking!?

    Are we saying that now we need The Thinking Quotient [TTQ]?

    IQ, EQ, AQ, ….. to ZQ are ALL NOT IMPORTANT.

    We must have TTQ or The Transparent Thinking Quotient [TTTQ]?????

    Life is so difficult….. and have to a lot…..

  19. Benjamin said

    Passerby,

    I don’t know if that can be considered a slippery slope. There’s no connection between the first and the last premise, in your summary. Because of this, it doesn’t look like a real argument — an Opposition without rights must equal to people losing patriotism and loyalty to the state — and I believe that there are implicit arguments within it that have to be considered first.

  20. […] Greece and other civilizations. Furthermore, this argument suffers from the flaw known as the Slippery Slope. Anyway, what is wrong with them coming to Singapore? As long as they follow the law, things should […]

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