Musings from my desk

Slippery slopes are the antithesis of mindfulness

2023-06-09 10:50:04 -0500 CDT


Slippery slopes are a compelling rhetorical device because they cause us to react in emotional ways to hypothetical future outcomes. The practice of mindfulness teaches us that the only thing we have control over is the present moment. These two approaches are fundamentally opposed, and explains part of why I have such a problem with slippery slope arguments.

NTLDR (Not too long, did read)

Today on my morning walk with my dog Salami, I listened to Episode 545 of the Freakonomics Podcast: “Enough with the Slippery Slopes!”. I really enjoyed this episode because I was taught in primary school that slippery slopes are a logical fallacy and therefore indicate faulty logic wherever they are used. In this episode, Eugene Volokh, professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles Law School, clarifies that there is a difference between the philosophical conception of a slippery slope and the practical implementation of a slippery slope as a rhetorical device in policy and law:

…there certainly are philosophical works generally that say slippery slope arguments are a fallacy. What they’re referring to is again, logical claims. If you take step A, then inevitably step B will be taken. That’s almost never the case

However, if your argument is, “This first step A may change the psychological or the political or the economic environment in a way that will influence future step B,” that’s not a fallacy anymore.

- Eugene Volokh, Freakonomics episode 545

I found this point to be profound, because it bridged a long-standing gap in my understanding of the slippery slope argument. The episode goes to show examples of slippery slope arguments that, in retrospect, have indeed come to pass. For example, the episode discusses how smoking bans in public spaces started as very limited restrictions and eventually grew to be nearly ubiquitous as public and political sentiment adjusted to the new policies. This is indeed a compelling argument, and yet, it doesn’t change the fact that the outcomes promised by slippery slope arguments are not guaranteed. As Ben Gold, a criminal defense attorney at Bilecki Law Group, describes in the episode’s introduction:

I heard a clip in some podcast or something of a politician who had said, “Allowing for universal background checks, it’s a slippery slope from there, because what prevents the government from then instituting entirely new and different surveillance programs?”

I thought to myself, well, there’s a lot of things that would prevent that from happening. For instance, a new law would have to be made, there’d be legislation, there would be a new Supreme Court ruling.

- Ben Gold, Freakonomics episode 545

This is evidenced by the same example of public smoking bans. Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, describes how public smoking bans were opposed by the tobacco industry by using a slippery slope argument. In this case, the hypothetical future described in the slippery slope never came to pass:

Every time any governmental agency has proposed new rules restricting smoking indoors, the tobacco industry has stepped forth to say, “This will literally destroy the restaurant and bar business. We’re going to create mass unemployment. If you work in an office building, smokers are going to have to spend so much time outside smoking, your productivity is going to drop off, and your business will fail.”

- Matthew Myers, Freakonomics episode 545

This all made me ponder the usefulness and disadvantages of slippery slope arguments. One other example from the episode particularly stuck out to me, because it resonated with a personal viewpoint that I hold: abortion rights. Eugene Volokh paints a picture in which a pro-abortion activist might be deeply sympathetic to a slippery slope argument. He describes a scenario where a pro-abortion activist lives in a state that allows abortions and in which the political climate is favorable to preserving these rights. In this scenario, Volokh describes a hypothetical policy proposal for a modest restriction on abortion (the definition of the term “modest restriction” is left to the listener). Volokh says that in this scenario, a pro-abortion activist may understandably worry about passing a bill like this, because it might create an environment where the public is more willing to accept governmental restrictions on abortion. A pro-abortion activist might find such a potential future very threatening and therefore might fight against such a bill, regardless of the actual merits of the bill itself.

This example illustrated why I am so strongly turned off by slippery slope arguments: they inherently assume that one’s moral positions are static over time, and they assume that one’s present moral position is superior to any moral position that one could possibly hold in the future. This view point is rooted in a deep resistance to change, and an utter lack of intellectual humility. Essentially, invoking a slippery slope suggests that we as humans are collectively unable to adjust, grow, and optimize based on our current conditions. I believe the opposite is true, and that the practice of mindfulness can help us embody this philosophy.

I don’t intend this to be a class on mindfulness; my only purpose of using this term is to describe a practice of focusing on the present (as in, our current temporal condition). The practice of mindfulness suggests that fear and anxiety are typically rooted in beliefs about what may (or may not) happen in the future. In addition, mindfulness suggests that the future is not real1: it has not come to pass and therefore we cannot know it for certain. Focusing on the present moment allows us to focus on what is tangible and real in our actual lived experience. I find this to be a more meaningful way to approach my life because it focuses my attention on what is literally happening - my feelings, my actions, my reactions to the actions around me - rather than my feelings about a hypothetical future which may or may not play out the way I expect.

Another huge benefit I find to practicing mindfulness is increasing my agency in my own life. This means that I have control over my present condition, including my beliefs, values, and moral positions. In contrast, I do not have control over my future condition because it is not real and has not happened. This is important because it means that I can reevaluate my moral positions continuously based on my current experience, and the information that is currently at my disposal. My values are informed by the facts of the world I live in, and therefore my values might change as the facts around me change. This is particularly true with respect to ethics and social policy, where we are continuously learning more about how to optimize social wellbeing.

The most significant outcome of this line of thinking is that worrying about my (or others’) reactions to future hypotheticals is not only useless, but also counteractive. Rhetorical slippery slopes presuppose that public and personal opinion will remain exactly the same in the future. The slippery slope argument suggests that A leads to B and B leads to C, and C is undesireable. Aside from the obvious critique that we don’t know whether or not A will lead to B and B to C, there is a more subtle critique of this argument: we simply don’t know if outcome C will be undesireable to our future selves. Certainly we can make guesses based on our current knowledge of the world, but I believe it does ourselves a disservice to assume that our moral positions are static. I hope that my mental faculties are mature enough that I can reevaluate my moral positions continuously as new information develops. If that means my future self supports a position which my present self would oppose, then so be it. As long as my moral position is based firmly in the current information I have at my disposal, then this is the best I can do.

Slippery slopes are a compelling rhetorical device because they cause us to react in emotional ways to hypothetical future outcomes. I believe a more productive approach is to assess each present moment with the best information available, and make a decision based on how that information constructs your moral views.

Thanks to Stephen Dubner and the Freakonomics team for another thought-provoking episode.

1Bear in mind that I am not a professional mindfulness guru, nor a therapist, nor even precisely qualified to have this blog which you’re currently reading. This is all based on my own understandings, and is not intended to be an absolute decree on the principles of mindfulness.