Why I’m sick of slippery-slope arguments

Real, life-changing medical advances are being blocked for fear of ‘designer babies’; humane laws are stymied because of things they do not propose

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

Well, of course the Assisted Dying Bill failed. It mattered not a jot that an overwhelming majority of public opinion urged its success; it was always going to fail and the only surprising thing is that anybody is surprised. I’ll bet my teeth on a few more certainties, too. Last week the required 200,000 people put down their spliffs long enough to sign a petition in favour of decriminalising cannabis and thus, in October, the matter will be debated by MPs. Proponents, however, really should not bother — they will lose, regardless.

Also last week it was reported that genetic engineering is now our most rapidly developing area of scientific research; nevertheless, each of its life-enhancing discoveries continues to face immense hurdles — at which many fall — on the journey between laboratories and needy patients. In every case, the chance of change succumbs to the same argument: that of the ubiquitous ‘slippery slope’. Assisted dying bit the dust not because anybody seriously wishes to prolong agony among the terminally ill but because, in the dark minds of scattergun alarmists and conspiracy theorists, to allow it would be a slippery slope towards truckloads of septuagenarians being hurled, still kicking, into the gaping mouths of crematoria.

Lightening up the law on cannabis may be opposed for several reasons, good and bad, worthy of consideration and far-fetched. It does not tax me particularly, either way; I never was greatly fond of the stuff. But when it returns to debate next month, the move will fail not by dint of the reasoned arguments. It will fail because, as always, the ignorant cling to the belief that the use of cannabis is a slippery slope towards the use of, say, heroin — in spite of countless studies proving the exact opposite. If you don’t have to go underground for your weed, you won’t be introduced to the nastier products for sale in the same den — much as, if you do not venture into the high street, you are less likely to indulge in an impulse buy from a shop window.

The massed opposition to genetic engineering must break the cleverest of hearts when they are accused of creating a slippery slope to ‘designer babies’. I cannot imagine how it would feel to have found a way to manipulate a gene in order to save a baby from being born into the lifelong anguish of cystic fibrosis, only to be greeted by an intake of breath: heavens, no! Next thing, women will be asking for children with blue eyes!

Taken simply as a tool of argument, the slippery slope demonstrates a paucity of intellectual rigour: it is one thing to oppose what is being proposed and another altogether to oppose what is not. The first requires knowledge, study and fact; the second needs neither evidence nor proof and is validated as a warning by nothing more than its own utterance.

In efforts to beef up the warnings there are those who cite the experience of other countries, as did Douglas Murray in his cover story a fortnight ago. Douglas cited Holland and Belgium, but what happens in other countries is not an inevitable template for what will happen in this one. As long as there are laws that apply in Dover but not in Calais or Amsterdam, we have only the record in Britain as a credible measure — and in this country, often almost to a fault, we have shown ourselves to be pretty damn rigorous both in finding consensus and in sticking to it.

Sometimes we involve the law. So, for instance, when gay sex between men was made legal in 1967, and the law specified only men over 21, we continued to prosecute younger hanky-panky. In 1994 we returned to Parliament for stout debate and consideration, before reducing the age to 18. For the sake of parity with heterosexuals, we repeated the arduous procedure and, in 2001, 16-year-olds were included. There was no slope, slippery or otherwise — just three clear, controlled and legislated steps.

Speaking of 16-year-olds: we are the only country in Europe that allows military recruitment at 16 rather than at 18. Some of us would like to change that (16 is awfully young to be able to sign away the next six years of your life, including risking it in warfare, to a strictly binding agreement). But none of us would sensibly argue that these 16-year-olds are perched upon a slippery slope leading to 12-year-olds navigating drones over Iraq. Even though, in these techno-years, they would probably make a better fist of it than their elders, we do not teach our children to kill. This is Britain, not Sierra Leone.

Sometimes, we do not need to involve the law; consensus is reached culturally, yet clung to all the same. Most people in this country eat meat — but that does not include chowing down on the family dog or raiding the local gymkhana for Sunday lunch.

And sometimes what begins in law becomes simply absorbed into cultural consensus. We used to speak of ‘legal limits’ for alcohol consumption before driving a car; these days most people unthinkingly recognise that a couple of swift halves after work might be fine while competitive sinking of yards of ale is not — and we don’t think that anyone who defies that principle is either big or clever.

Moreover, when we discover those who have found loopholes and wiggle-room, we have proved ourselves to be collectively cleverer at blocking them than the scaremongers allow. For example, once we established that there were some who were abusing scans during pregnancy to determine the sex of their child, and then terminating those of the ‘wrong’ sex, most NHS hospitals took it upon themselves to inform parents that it was not the hospital’s policy to tell them what sex they were expecting. What they did not do was invoke the slippery slope to stop the scans that have revolutionised antenatal medical practice.

(Of course, as an aside, we must admit that the very rich can still get around that one, as they can get around so much else. Then again, we must also admit that, by and large, it was not the very rich who were guilty of the abuse; it was the poor, the illiterate and — are we allowed to say this? — the non-British.)

Patriotism may be an overrated virtue, but I have faith in the everyday common sense of most of my countrymen and their capacity to understand precisely when and where to apply brakes. As for those who seek only to stifle potential, who cannot embrace any progress, change or evolution without conjuring out of thin air a terrifying slippery slope, we would be better served if they would shut up, suit up and ski down it instead.

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Show comments
  • Gilbert White

    The problem you can sign a petition legalising drugs but you cannot sign a petition transporting drug users to Papua New Guinea. Do not even think about it?

  • cartimandua

    No pet Cannabis is implicated in 1 in 4 new cases of psychosis in the young.

    • ribenademon

      Cite your sources and show your working.

      • PeteTongue

        You’re reading the wrong mags, ribena.
        Get yourself a proper medical journal to get your answers.
        Of course cartimandua is right. What might be wrong for the young might be of benefit to the old though.

        • ribenademon

          Not at all, the medical industry overwhelmingly agrees that cannabis is a relatively benign substance and increasingly implicates tobacco and alcohol as the prime causes in cases of psychosis. Cannabis is not without harm, nothing is, and like most things is best used with care/direction.

          • soysauce1

            Cite your sources and show your working

          • ribenademon
          • Dominic Stockford

            And the names of the websites don’t give us a clue as to the conclusions they are going to reach, do they?

          • Jeff S

            That’s not entirely true though is it. I’m actually in favour of it being legalised, for a wide variety of reasons, but claiming that the medical industry “overwhelmingly agrees” that it is almost harmless is rather disingenuous, and more to the point, incorrect.

            The problem is that the argument very quickly descends into polemic as both sides push their agenda, and it is hard to find an unbiased amalgam of scientific publications on the web, where most people will go for quick answers. For example, the top link you posted below presents an abridged version of sources regarding correlation between weed and psychosis, claiming that the link is minimal. However in a number of places, for example here;


            that seems to be disputed. The ICSDP look to be very keen to have the stuff legalised, and it seems they don’t present as balanced a view as they’d like. Like I said, I’m in favour of legalising it, taking it out of the hands of drug dealers, regulating it, taxing it, whilst saving resources on law enforcement and criminalising a section of young people, and allowing us to do proper research on its effects. Only then can we better educate people, without them being bombarded with misinformation from both sides.

          • ribenademon

            You are correct, I am being disingenuous above. I blame the late hour of posting.

            The medical industry does not agree overwhelmingly, but I do think that the scientific side of things is compromised by ideology and makes it harder to sift things -as you allude to. Let us not forget Prof Nutt was sacked by a politician for giving evidence as an appointed expert. The debate is harder and harder to have though when claims like “1 in 4 new cases of psychosis in the young” are thrown around with nothing backing them up. The schizophrenia rates across the Western world have not changed in any kind of statistically significant fashion since the 60s. If skunk magically induces psychosis in teenagers, I would expect to see some kind of actual demonstration of this beyond the Daily Mail headline -there does not seem to be any kind of evidence beyond anecdote.

            I do think that the stuff when produced carefully, and not smoked with tobacco, preferably eaten is pretty harmless. I take your point about neutral education being the best sort of thing but the caution being preached by a lot of sources in this is also rather suspect, this is not a novel pill cooked up in a lab last year but something studied for decades and used for centuries.

          • PeteTongue

            I am not touching anything that isn’t legal.
            The government knows what is best.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Experimenting with irony?

    • Richard Baranov


  • MikeF

    “Next thing, women will be asking for children with blue eyes!” Exactly what those two American lesbians that Rod was writing about the other day did.

  • PerplexedSardine

    Well the trouble with abolishing slippery slope arguments is that once they’re gone who knows where you’ll end up?

    • UKSteve

      You start allowing this sort of thing, and it’s…..well……it’s a slippery slope, I say!

    • Richard Baranov

      Not so, what you will end up with is rigorous thinking instead of the lazy dismissal of important issues by slippery slope nonsense, for nonsense it is.

      • PerplexedSardine

        So what you’re saying is that slippery slope arguments should be disregarded as they are a slippery slope?

        • Richard Baranov

          Slippery Slope arguments are a logical fallacy and therefore not suitable for rational discussion. What they do is make false assumptions about what the possible consequences are of an action, as if those consequences were fixed and inevitable. This is nonsense because life itself isn’t like that and because slippery slope arguments suggest there are no brakes, blatantly false, that inevitably consequences are a race to the bottom and always the worst scenario, also not true. We have laws, ethical systems, peer pressure, social conventions, etc. etc. etc. all act as mitigation and as pressures that alter an act. Very rare, if at all, in real life that a slippery slope is an actuality. Slippery slopes ignore the fact that all actions are embedded in a complex milieu of actions and cannot be extricated so that one can point out some action in isolation and declare: “That’s a slippery slope.” Such thing are only abstractions.

  • Zanderz

    The argument here makes no sense. What has the legalisation if drugs got to do with the age at which someone can join the army?

    It also shows a totally unreal understanding of the nature of humanity – almost Corbynesque.

    Given the license, humans will take the opportunity and it’s the role of good government to set the constraints in society to stop that happening.

  • Zalacain

    People who use the “slippery slope argument” tend to be religious and therefore not used to using logic when making moral or philosophical pronouncements.
    The “slippery slope argument” should not be used to ban something but as an inducement to build sturdy steps on that slope.

    • soysauce1

      It used to be slippery slope, now I prefer Trojan Horse, get a small change in the law and then gently push, push, push until you stretch it where you want, bombard the public with ‘hard luck’ tales I found the constant wheeling out of seriously ill people a nauseating abuse and attempt at blackmail to bring in euthanasia, lie about the statistics it’s absolute bo**ox that 86% of people are in favour of euthanasia and as in Holland (A leading doctor there who brought in euthanasia urged us to reject this legislation) in Belgium you can now dispatch children, the depressed almost anyone who you can think of who might have stubbed their toe recently, religion doesn’t come into it and incidentally the Churches are responsible for educating more people than anyone else on the planet…by and large they don’t seem to be doing too badly.

      • Zalacain

        You must be aware that there are people who are alive and who want to die. Some have what we would consider a good reason, “endless pain or total immobility” and others who are just depressed. If somebody is dying of some particularly painful cancer, and is begging to end it all, would you consider it OK for the doctor to give that person an overdose of morphine, thus ending that patient’s life? Because right now that doctor or nurse could go to jail.
        I’m aware of the potential for things to be taken too far, but that is an argument for building good systems that protect the weak. Is this really beyond us all? Because if it is, we are going to have a lot of people suffering unnecessarily thanks to our own fear of ourselves.

        • Zalacain

          Also, quite frankly I don’t consider it the government’s business to legislate what I want to do with my life. It is their business however, to protect me from others who may want to harm me for their own ends.

          • Dominic Stockford

            Which is the slippery slope argument – some of those in the pro camp at Parliament on the day of the vote went away horrified at what they heard others in the pro camp said intended to happen in the future – this was, in the intention of many, a ‘first step’. So horrified that they told me, in the anti camp, without being asked.

        • veritas

          A Catholic doctor informed me that if morphine is being administered for the purpose of relieving pain and a secondary consequence is an accelerated death – there is no offence. A lawyer has confirmed this.

          • Zalacain

            You are describing euthanasia. Does that mean that you agree with it?

          • Dominic Stockford

            No, they aren’t. Euthanasia is the deliberate ending of life.
            Pain relief, which may also hasten the end of life, is different, ‘and you know it is’.

          • Zalacain

            noun: euthanasia
            the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma.

            I think, that any action that knowingly leads to the early death of a patient falls under the above definition.

          • Dominic Stockford

            No. I don’t think so. Pain relief is the intention of the action, not death. Death MAY occur as the dose is increased, but it does not neccessarily do so.

            My time as a hospital chaplain taught me never to make an assumption as to what medication might do to someone.

          • Zalacain

            You are describing a very, very grey area. However governments have to decide and to draw the line somewhere. I feel that patients should have more say than they do now, and that doctors should not be risking prosecution when giving patients “a bit too much morphine”. A proper legislative framework should protect the interests of everybody in a consistent way.

        • James H, London

          And, there’s the lying again.

          Newsflash, Mr Bright: the choice is not between writhing in agony and death. The choice is between high doses (not overdoses) which do being death closer, and killing a human being. The former is acceptable, even in Catholic teaching, the latter is unacceptable to all but the losers of WWII.

          • Zalacain

            Communist? WWII? You are babbling.

    • veritas

      ‘People who use the “slippery slope argument” tend to be religious …’

      They are often not religious, but the people who have to carry out the proposed measures.
      There are lots of people who want to see capital punishment restored but they are not as keen at the idea of having to carry out the hanging themselves.

    • James H, London

      And right on cue, some communist shows up with a thought-free, ideologically pure statement that doesn’t quite ascend to the level of lying.

  • KilowattTyler

    “Assisted dying bit the dust not because anybody seriously wishes to prolong agony among the terminally ill but because, in the dark minds of scattergun alarmists and conspiracy theorists, to allow it would be a slippery slope towards truckloads of septuagenarians being hurled, still kicking, into the gaping mouths of crematoria”. A nice bit of cheap raillery – but just see the article in this issue by Matthew Parris.
    ‘Slippery slopes’ exist where people with hidden motives use reasonable-sounding ideas to force open a crack in legislation and/or public perception and then push until the crack opens wider. There are enthusiasts for killing off the economically unviable but this idea is so repugnant to the vast majority of people that the only way this could come about is by introducing legislation that permits the termination of life to be a purely a matter of professional judgement. Once certain forms of killing are out of the reach of the law-courts it will become easier to extend ‘euthanasia’ from the avoidance of suffering to getting rid of those who are just a bit dim, too old or a bit barmy.
    As for genetically-modifying human beings, this will start with getting rid of horrible inherited diseases (but then again, the early detection and abortion of affected foetuses would achieve this aim, as it is doing with Down’s Syndrome). All professions seek to extend their power and rewards and human gene-engineering will be no exception. We will move on from illness to the designing of people to order. This in turn will result in people being designed to fit the prevailing social and economic order prevailing at the time of their conception, as this is what “success” means.

    • LittleRedRidingHood

      Exactly. Isn’t assisted dying being abused in Belgium where people are being bullied into agreeing their own demise. I’m sure I saw comment on this recently.
      That is the slippery slope. Belgium are half way down.

      • Leon Wolfeson

        I know, they’re being offered a choice. They’re not down with you yet!

        • LittleRedRidingHood

          And here you are again.My you get around. So I need to get personal security?
          They are not being offered a choice. They are being told what their choice should be. Two different things.

          • Leon Wolfeson

            No, your usage of personal security is your choice.

            As you demand your ideology of no-choice be applied. Right.

          • LittleRedRidingHood

            Wrong… Unfortunately…. Yet again.
            It’s not your fault. It must be difficult for you.

          • Leon Wolfeson

            So, you don’t know what I posted, you automatically know it’s wrong.

            Let’s see…I support Britain. There.

          • LittleRedRidingHood

            Luckily it all fits in the screen so I can see clearly what you posted…. Nope! Still failing to see your point.

            By the way bravo on supporting Britain. Very manly of you.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      “Assisted dying bit the dust not because anybody seriously wishes to prolong agony among the terminally ill but because, in the dark minds of scattergun alarmists and conspiracy theorists, to allow it would be a slippery slope towards truckloads of septuagenarians being hurled, still kicking, into the gaping mouths of crematoria”.

      “Dying ain’t much of a living, boy.”
      Figure out the reference and you’ll grasp the relevance.
      Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

      • KilowattTyler

        Outlaw Josey Wales – but so what?

  • PeteTongue

    Well, if that bill was always going o fail as you purport, why did the Spectator run full page pro assisted dying bill ads on the eve of the commons hoo-ha?

  • Retired Nurse

    ‘the overwhelming majority of people ‘ did not support assisted dying – they only polled 1,000 of their own members – sure as heck glad people like yourself rarely get anywhere near science or medicine….

  • veritas

    If the ‘slippery slope’ argument is fallacious, why do those campaigning for change often make a limited demand first, with the intention of pushing forwards thereafter?

    • Zalacain

      You cannot argue against what you suspect people may think or want to do. You can only argue against what people say and do.

      • veritas

        I am campaigning for final objective Z.
        I know that it will be opposed.
        I therefore campaign for X, intending then to campaign for Y, ultimately Z.
        The person who challenges me at the first step and says ‘This will end with Z’ is accurate in his understanding of what I am about.

        The fact that campaigners regularly select the slippery slope
        justifies opponents in warning about the slippery slope.

        • Zalacain

          What happens to those of us that were campaigning for X all the time with no intention of going for Y or Z? You claim that X shouldn’t be allowed only because you imagine that we may be interested in Y or Z.

          • veritas

            Fair enough, but I see no reason why my opponents should not raise the issue of my ultimate objective.
            There is the law of unintended consequences. It is not unreasonable for people to examine the position at X and decide whether it will logically and necessarily lead to Z.

            Many thanks for the exchange of views. I have to go out now – last words to you if you wish.

  • colchar

    Far too many people do not understand that slippery slope arguments are logical fallacies and are therefore completely invalid.

    • Captain Dryland

      Slippery slope arguments are indeed logically fallacious in those cases where a logical connection between the ‘steps’ down the slope are lacking. But the mistake you, and the author, make is to assume we are working with logic when we deal with legislation such as ‘right to die’. Not so, we deal to a great extent with the illogical nature of human thought, belief, and emotion. Emotional spasms that grip a population can become embedded in legislation enacted by democratic governments keen to maintain their popularity. When did you last see an advertising campaign based on an appeal to logic?

  • polistra24

    I agree that the slippery slope is a poor argument. Unfortunately assisted dying does NOT belong in this category. Murder is murder, and the law explicitly permits explicit murder. Already down the slope and onto the floodplain.

  • James H, London

    Utter poppycock. The slippery slope argument has been proven right, time and time again. It doesn’t depend on a lack of intellectual rigour, only a willingness to accept evidence you don’t like.

  • William_Brown

    A filter on a joint? Now that IS the thin end of the wedge. Must be a London thing.

  • LoveMeIamALiberal

    The slippery slope argument is an excellent one. It points out that proposed laws contained contradictory principles that will need to be worked out at some point e.g. if one accepted doctors can give someone wanting to die a lethal cocktail then why should they not be allowed to administer it to someone who cannot physically take it? And then why not extend this ‘right’ to those who are not teminally ill but have a disability they don’t want to live with? And then why not make this decision for those who are not mentally competent to make this decision?

    • Zalacain

      And that is why laws should be well written.

  • Andrew Baxter

    The problem is that slop arguments are so often proven true. Take abortion. It was warned that relaxation would lead to an abortion on demand culture, we now have 180, 000 abortions a year. Same for divorce. Same for decriminalising homosexuality, Carol doesn’t mention that those opposed at the time did say that the age would to lowered to be equal in the future. Whilst I disagree with their position, that prediction was absolutely correct.

    Slippery slope are not necessarily always right, but they can often be, something which should not be forgotten.

  • Zionist lackey

    When abortion in 1967 was first legalised it had a legitimate social argument, if not a moral one – which went ignored by the 1960’s progressives under the leadership of David Steel on this issue. Before abortion was legalised; we had the back street practitioners who were penalised, rightly so regarding their methods of abortion which were based more on ignorance than sound biology. They paid in many ways for such ignorance by being brought before the courts and prosecuted.

    Here I am dealing with the slippery slope argument opposed by Carol Sarler. I am doing so because she opposes such an argument. I am using the case of abortion to represent such a slippery slope. First of all may I say I believe in pressing the boundaries of science; but not without an ethical or moral input. Something which many chose to feel irrelevant; discovery and advancement is and sod the moral consequences.

  • iand

    As someone who battled Cannabis addiction for 20 years, it’s not a slippery slope thing, Weed wont kill you, but what it will do is rob you of motivation, make you content with what little you have in life. My friends who don’t smoke, without exception, earn more money, are still married and seem generally happier with their lives.

  • ArtieHarris

    IMHO, it is completely immoral to argue for the criminalisation of marijuana unless you do the same for alcohol.

    There can be no justification for legally separating the two, particularly given that alcohol is known to cause far more problems to individuals and to society.

    Furthermore, it is totally immoral to cause harm to people who are not harming others and who have no intention of doing so.

    The Golden Rule needs to be attended to.

    As for medical marijuana, it is absolutely outrageous to prevent millions (literally) of people who are seriously ill and/or dying from having access to a leaf.

    Absolutely shameful.

    • sidor

      I think your arguments are missing an important point. The assumption that anyone should be free to harm oneself is obviously wrong and anti-social. Your health isn’t anymore your private business. Taxpayers who are supposed to pay for your treatment have a legitimate right to constrain your attempts to inflict damage to your body or mind. This is a sad fact that in a modern high-tech society we have to trade our freedom for some practical advantages.

      • ArtieHarris

        Would you also ban sex to stop people from getting STDs?

        • sidor

          In countries with legalised prostitution the ladies providing this service have been obliged to pass medical checks.

  • Angela Taylor

    I’ve been on medications for epilepsy for 24yrs. I had brain
    surgery for it after having up to 100 seizures a day. Nobody told me anything
    about Cannabis Oil, and I understand that telling patients about that is a huge
    risk for doctors. I understand that doctors have to eat too. I also understand
    that doctors went into the profession that they are in to help people. If
    helping people is the top priority, I beg doctors everywhere…please don’t
    harm your patients as I am harmed. I love people who have been and are my
    doctors, and nurses. Still, I don’t deserve to have more than epilepsy today,
    but I do. I don’t deserve to suffer, but I am. That would be due to all
    of the horrible side-effects from medications, testing, and brain surgery. I
    don’t regret what I have been put through. I know it has helped those in need,
    and I learned at a very young age that everything happens for a reason. I know
    that I am one of the many who should stand tall knowing that I have made a difference
    in this world. When I die, I will know that, that is worth everything to
    me. In all honesty, it’s very hard to stand tall knowing the world is
    continuing to let this happen. I have to ask doctors what I gave part of my
    life for exactly. I sure as heck didn’t give part of it to just sit back and
    watch as the medical field tortures more innocent souls. I create as I learned
    in rehab. to let others know not to give up on life. I intend to continue this,
    and make it a job so I can have a income as long as possible. Legalize Medical
    Marijuana, save our lives.. in the meantime I beg you to help me pay for the
    medical equipment that I need, and to keep on inspiring others to keep living
    by donating https://www.gofundme.com/8r6p6p6taw I am not as Naive as I once
    was, I know my lifespan has shortened. The question I ask is do you want me to
    have a good quality of life while I am here, or do you want me to keep
    suffering? If you don’t want me to keep suffering please donate and help me
    afford to take care of myself, and move to a location where Medical Marijuana
    is legal.

  • Chamber Pot

    I will support assisted dying if they ban abortion and bring back hanging.

  • winstonmatthews

    The gateway theory, often used by fools, who don’t consider alcohol and nicotine as drugs.

  • davidshort10

    I thought Carol Sarler and her views had slipped off the slope decades ago. Was she revived by that Eighties man, Andrew Brillo Pad Neill, who happens to be md of the Spectator. I cannot imagine the young ones of the Spectator commissioning her or even knowing who this old feminist was.

  • davidshort10

    “Well, of course the Assisted Dying Bill failed. It mattered not a jot that an overwhelming majority of public opinion urged its success”. Whoops. “Well, of course the Let’s Bring Hanging Back Bill succeeded. It mattered that an overwhelming majority of public opinion urged its success”. These old-style Feminazis love democracy only when it suits them.