A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, March 19, 2012

Slippery Slope? What Slippery Slope?

There is a useful distinction between unthinkable and implausible.  The latter has to do merely with probabilities (whatever they are).  The former has to do with actionability. 

For a very long time, the idea that Rome might be sacked was unthinkable, and only partly because for much of that time it was also implausible.  Sulla or Caesar might cross the Rubicon, or they might compile proscription lists*, but there were some lines they would not cross.  Rome herself was sacred.  Even while Aurelian was burning Alexandria to reunite the Empire, the idea of burning Rome (by then an Imperial backwater) remained unthought. 

Then, one day a Gothic mercenary in arrears on his protection money salary decided to come collect along with a couple thousand of his close personal friends; the sister of two emperors, Galla Placida, "seized control of the Roman Senate and the City and represented the defiance in the last one hundred days of the world"**; and all of a sudden Rome was smoking. 

At which point everyone shook themselves and looked at each other and said, "Hey..."  What had been unthinkable was now thinkable; and before you knew it, everyone and his great aunt Matilda was sacking Rome, or trying to. 
*proscription lists.  The rulers would make secret lists of Roman citizens who could be killed without trial.  Fortunately, America doesn't have...  um, err....
**Galla Placidia.  The quote is from R.A.Lafferty's idiosyncratic Fall of Rome

The Slippery Slope

Perhaps you have been to a party in which there was a turd in the punchbowl.  Or perhaps not.  Such garnishments are more often metaphorical than real.  But let us suppose some genuine abashment has taken place.  No one wants to be the first to bring it up.  There will be a long period in which everyone talks about something else before finally someone mentions it.  Then, like a seed crystal dropped into a supersaturated solution, this precipitates the conversation and suddenly no one is talking about anything else. 

The Perceptive Reader will note the resemblance to the concept of Tipping Point or Slippery Slope.  The latter is sometimes called the "Slippery Slope Fallacy" by those whose notions of fallacies are formed by Internet discussions.  (Many such folks, I find, are not even clear on the distinction between formal fallacy and material fallacy!)  This is illustrated by the following cartoon:
Now, I don't know that anyone made the argument in the upper left panel, since there is no logical connection between premise and conclusion.  There was never any reason in moral or natural philosophy for the political color bar.  That was purely Age of Reason prejudice.  However, we did note this incident a while back:

"Puppy Love: Man Marries a Real Dog"--headline, Toowoomba (Australia) Chronicle, Dec. 1

A YOUNG Toowoomba man yesterday tied the knot with his best friend – a five-year-old labrador.

In perhaps a first for the Garden City, Laurel Bank Park hosted the wedding of Joseph Guiso and Honey, a labrador he adopted five years ago.
Thirty of the couple’s closest friends and family were in attendance for the emotional ceremony, held at dusk.
So apparently, people marrying housepets really was just around the corner; not because of the collapse of some modern prejudice, but because of the collapse of the basic concept of marriage.  Recall, too, the young woman who married the Eiffel Tower

It was freezing in Paris, that day in January, 2004, when [Erika LaBrie] and a friend set eyes upon the Eiffel Tower. When they entered, a special feeling came over her; one she can only describe as intense love, a chemical attraction. That feeling of finding The One.
“Everyone was all bundled up and I felt so warm inside,” she says, recalling the moment with fondness. “I thought, ‘I don't feel cold, I feel so much warmth coming from the Eiffel tower.'”
For three years, the professional archer from San Francisco would visit the object of her affection, going for weeks at a time, spending all day touching the tower. And then on April 8, 2007, Erika LaBrie became Erika Eiffel in a commitment ceremony before 10 of her closest friends.

Alaric has already sacked Rome.  Others will follow.

Social engineering consists of two phases:
  1. What could possibly go wrong?
  2. How were we supposed to know?
One of the reasons elders were once thought Wise Old Heads was that they could remember Phase I; but in the evanescent memories of the Youth Culture there is no recollection that matters may once have been different (save as deplorable stereotypes).  Cf. recent Fluke Kerfuffle. 

It Takes an Intellectual

Unperson.  Danger!
Which brings us at last to the upper right hand panel in the above cartoon.   Academic philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva have written a peer-reviewed paper “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” in the Journal of Medical Ethics in which they say that killing newborns is acceptable, and even in some cases to be encouraged.  Their abstract:
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

This is part and parcel of the Late Modern/Post Modern fear of life.  I tabbed the story prior to the Medical Crisis and find now that the abstract is taken down.  We find it commented upon here.  At first, some suspected that the article was a spoof, perhaps by evil abortion opponents; but that appears not to be the case.  The authors are impeccably progressive and utterly in earnest.  And their argument in favor of infanticide is premised precisely on the right to abortion.  They are not warning of a slippery slope, they are advocating it. 

The editor of the "ethics" journal states in the authors' defense:
What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited. More than ever, proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics [sic] opposed to the very values of a liberal society.
Well, at least we know what he thinks are the values of a liberal society.  It's not the liberalism of old.  It's the faux-dispassionate attitude of the Wannsee Conference.  And to be a "fanatic opposed to the very values of a liberal society" one now need only express outrage over infanticide.  It is bad taste to point out that one is engaged in a "proper academic discussion" of something utterly repugnant.  

The risk is not that state legislatures -- or even federal judges -- are about to implement the progressive thought embodied in the article tomorrow morning.  (One is less certain about Executive Orders.)  It is that such things are now regarded as "thinkable" by the policy elite.  A wedge has been hammered into the crack.  In the next generation, the ynglings will not even know that infanticide was once considered beyond the pale. 


  1. The slippery slope has proven not to be a fallacy, and you are right; Rome's starting to smolder. I think it's bigger than the eroding of the definition of marriage. Rather, for most of the last 2000 years, the west was in thrall, for good or ill, to a novel kind of morality. Christianity stated that human life was valuable, even sacred. Yes, there have been countless Christians who did awful things, but the principle has always been enshrined in the theology- it's wrong to murder. As the western world becomes inherently less Christian (and more secular) these sorts of debates are an unavoidable outgrowth. If there is no god, then his principles are up for question. Including the idea that human life is sacred. Throughout most history, it's been anything but sacred, it's been cheap and disposable, if it was the wrong "sort" of human life. The Christian focus on human sanctity was an aberration outside of the human norm; as Christianity wanes, so do its principles. I'm not saying this is a good thing (Lord no, I am a Catholic!) but the situation makes a sort of grim sense.

  2. I do think that "implausible" has richer connotations than just being "improbable".

    Isn't "plausible" not a compliment?. If I call someone " a plausible man", it is a detraction and not a compliment.

    The Webster 1913 gives "implausible" as not wearing the appearance of truth or credibility, and not likely to be believed.

  3. A great post, with many good points, and thus I apologize for responding only to a quote from at third party:

    > What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited.

    I am amused at the "hey, hitting back isn't FAIR!" tone here. The journal publishes an article defending the idea of killing innocent people...and then is outraged that people respond with hostility, of all things!

    Under what moral scheme is it legitimate to kill people, but not to insult them?

  4. What do you mean by, "Age of Reason prejudice"?


    1. I'm assuming that is a reference to the construction of modern racism and racist ideology upon "reasonable" and even "scientific" bases, and the translation of that into cultural norms and legal principles.

  5. The latter is sometimes called the "Slippery Slope Fallacy" by those whose notions of fallacies are formed by Internet discussions.

    In their defense, logic isn't even offered at any school I've seen, and in college I had to hunt for it. (I think it gave me a philosophy credit-- I don't remember, I just wanted to understand the dang classic logic stuff.)

    Sometimes folks respond well to a link to a site explaining the difference and how some really obvious things can't be proven by logic.

  6. Great post, thank you, but it seems to me there is something to be said at least against the slippery slope imagery. The descent into sin may have the appearance of a slippery slope but it's actually more like jumping down the stairway. Our minds smooth the leaps into slips...


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