Rehabilitating the Slippery Slope

The slippery slope is an often derided phrase in the modern vernacular.  It is commonly asserted as a fallacy though even La Wik will admit that there is nothing inherent to the concept that is fallacious.  The unpopularity of the argument probably has more to do with who tends to make it than what is being said.  After all one of the most pervasive explanations of why we can’t have nice things ( ethno-nationalism, persecution of communists etc.) in the West is if we do this one thing it will lead to Nazis.  As per the usual inherent dishonesty of the Cathedral, the slippery slope metaphor is never invalid for the things they want to push.  The slippery slope argument is fundamentally a conservative one.  It is an argument made on when a party is attempting to preserve the status quo.  The left often uses it to preserve the status quo of the anti-nationalism, while the right often utilizes it in attempts to prevent further popularizing of various perversions.  Once something has become canon in a nation’s civil religion making the slippery slope argument about it is no longer even considered.  To make an argument that social security is a slippery slope would be absurd.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but that anything uphill of the present state of society is reactionary.  The chain of the events of a slippery slope argument is almost always prefaced from the present state.  It is therefore in practice conservative.

When beginning a slippery slope argument we must first establish a slope exists, and just as important which way it faces.  If you establish that a slope exists but the idea you are arguing against is uphill there is less danger of implementing that idea.  To estimate the grade of the slope we need to compare the present to some historical standard.  This being the wheelhouse of the reactionary it is quite a tall order.  If the past is out of the question, if it is singularly denounced and dismissed then we can only compare our counterfactual narratives.  When comparing counterfactual narratives, the party with the strong horse narrative wins.  The current strong horse narrative is that anything is possible; there are no slopes except for those nasty ones at the edge of the Overton Window. The liberal conception of the world (at least in terms of the slippery slope topography) is much like that of the flat earth.  It is a large flat plane with a few interesting hills but mostly just flat.  Around the edges water falls steeply into the Nazi abyss.  As long as we stay far away from the edges of the earth (all edges are right wing) we will be fine.  Some may even admit that one of the corners of the earth is Stalinist, but the other three are definitely Nazis, or at least crypto Nazis. The solution to this dilemma is not to shy from history or to argue our Utopian visions, but embrace history and accept the flak that may come.  Firstly we must ascertain what the corresponding arrangement was in the past, and then via comparison render judgment whether the present (or intended) state is more orderly or not.  This requires a certain amount of imagination or perhaps cognitive flexibility which would be a tall order for most of the world.  What if, in following this line of logic, we were to determine that one of our pet systems or projects were downhill of our past?  What would that mean for society?  Would we really have to repeal our goals to turn back the clock?  Or worse would we accept our decline and live with it, knowing that it will slowly make things less complex, more primitive, more barbaric?  What does it look like to slowly disassemble a civilization on principle, knowing we are suffering just for “doing the right thing”?  Is order really that cruel?  I suspect many would rather throw up their hands and pretend everything will work out.  Let’s avoid that, and try to understand the slippery slope from a conservative perspective, as in one who conserves.

Like many conservative arguments the slippery slope draws from an ephemeral feeling, something that conservatives cannot fully comprehend or explain. These arguments draw on the remnants of ideas that would have been common sense a century ago but have been all but lost in time.  In order to rehabilitate this argument we must unearth those ephemeral elements that resonate with the conservative mind.  The slippery slope can be broken down in a few elements:

  • unintended consequences
  • unknown unknowns
  • unknown knowns
  • teleo-functionalism
  • fragility
  • social order.

It is with great regret that we must even defend the concept of social order.  Social order is often that thing that a conservative can point out but they can’t explain.  Often times, social order is not even described with the words “social order” instead it is described by euphemisms: healthy, prosperous, safe etc. these words circumscribe what conservatives cannot (or will not) fully describe.  Despite the eudemonia many liberals enjoy (often on the backs of conservatives) they still deny that there is such a thing as social order.  They tend to prefer a limited cultural relativity.  As such I hope to both describe and rehabilitate the concept of social order, precisely because establishing what is uphill or downhill on societies slope is dependent on what is social order and social chaos.

Water on a hill will tend to expend its potential energy (due to gravity) and reach the lowest state of potential energy possible.  Ergo water flows downhill.  Any sort of social order requires an investment of energy and a subsequent increase in complexity (a storing of energy).  The social order may or may not be robust, but enough erosion and it will begin to fall apart.  You can put a family back together but there is no force of nature (outside human actions) that will do so.  It’s is only by the choices of the actors (which may or may not be driven by biology or be conscious) that the family will reunite.  That we must expend energy to create or preserve: is a state of order, those things which tend to happen naturally (with no effort or action on the part of the actors) is a state of disorder.  Mating may be natural, and there are built in biological mechanisms which make it likely.  Mating is not inevitable in the sense that if you put two people of the opposite gender in a room there is no force which would bring them together against their will (agency aside).  If you jump off a building you will, without aids, fall.  There is nothing as certain or constant as gravity in human society.  There are biological, cultural, economic and institutional forces but these are the combination of either individual actions or collective actions (as response to incentives, instincts, biology and habits). To be more precise the most entropic state for humans is a bunch of scattered strangers living completely alone.  Humans have a habit of creating social order but there is no guarantee.  Let’s take a look at an actual group of strangers living alone to see what true social chaos looks like.

“The Ik are a people of northern Uganda who live at what must be surely the extreme of deprivation and disaster.  A largely hunting and gathering people who have in recent times practiced some crop planting, the Ik are not classified as a complex society….They are, nonetheless, a morbidly fascinating case of collapse in which a former, lower level of social complexity has essentially disappeared.

Due to drought and disruption by national boundaries of the traditional cycle of movement, the Ik live in such a food- and water-scarce environment that there is absolutely no advantage to reciprocity and social sharing.  The Ik, in consequence, display almost nothing of what could be considered societal organization.  They are so highly fragmented that most activities, especially subsistence, are pursued individually.  Each Ik will spend days or weeks on his or her own, searching for food and water.  Sharing is virtually nonexistent.  Two siblings or other kin can live side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other.  The family as a social unit has become dysfunctional.  Even conjugal pairs don’t form a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes.  Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can’t build a house alone.  The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food.  Indeed, their foraging is so independent that if both member happened to be at their residence together it is by accident.

Each conjugal compound is stockade against the others.  Several compounds together form a village, but this is largely a meaningless occurrence.  Villages have no political functions or organization, not even a central meeting place.

Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves.  This separation is absolute.  By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves.  Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child’s food whenever possible.  No food sharing occurs within an age-set.  Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons.  This is often given as a reason for having children.

Although little is known about how the Ik got to their present situation, there are some indications of former organizational patterns.  They possess clan names, although today they have no structural significance.  They live in villages, but these no longer have any political meaning.”

Tainter, Joseph A, The Collapse of Complex Societies

Unlike the Ik most people at the very least they will tend to congregate, cooperate and organize and in the best circumstances they create civilization (and not without trial, error, a lot of time and a few breakthroughs).  That people tend to innately display certain behavior does not mean that they are not increasing order, as there is energy expended both to create and maintain their achievements.  The nuclear family may seem like a spontaneous creation of society something that forms on its own, and yet it is a product of complex social arrangements.  The nuclear family is not a state of nature for humanity and it does not form in the wild. Human babies while more orderly than the dead plant and animal material that was processed to produce them relative to adults are simple systems.  The job of k selected parents in raising a child is to prepare them to integrate into society.  The parents must prepare the child, who is by nature downhill from them, to be able to push the ball back up the hill before they depart.  Every society is a few steps from chaos, and yet humans have a beautiful capacity to perpetuate themselves and their achievements (both living, abstract and inanimate). The robustness of the nuclear family formation is not the mark of how innate it is, but of the strength of the cultural and institutional forces which induce such arrangements.  That civilization took so long to emerge in human history is a sign that it is not the state of nature.  It is built upon, reliant on, guided, selected upon and punished by nature but it is not a state of nature.

“The citizens of modern complex societies usually do not realize that we are an anomaly of history.  Throughout the several million years that recognizable humans are known to have lived, the common political unit was the small, autonomous community, acting independently, and largely self-sufficient.  Robert Carneiro has estimated that 99.8 percent of human history has been dominated by these autonomous local communities…..It has only been with the last 6000 years that something unusual has emerged: the hierarchical, organized, interdependent states that are the major reference for our contemporary political experience.”

Tainter, Joseph A, The Collapse of Complex Societies

Understood from the lenses of social order (increasing complexity) and entropy the slippery slope argument is a claim that changing some social arrangement would increase entropy and destroy social order.  The direction of the slope is determined by an increase or decrease in social order.  A decrease represents a slide down the slope.  Establishing that a slope exists is as simple (and complex) as demonstrating that the new state suggested decreases social order.  The extraneous factors like biology and economics are features of the local topography that create complexity but fall soundly within the bounds of entropy and order. Economics is the sciences of choices particularly the science of making choices of how to turn the raw unordered resources around us (human capital included) into products for consumption (or to consume more resources to produce more goods).  These choices are only relevant in the context of human action and particularly human coordination.  There is no economy for a lone man building a house.  He may make choices but there is no need to barter for his resources.  Every trade made within the market system is a movement of goods towards their most productive ends (from the subjective perspective of the actors involved).  Their value may be subjective to the participants, but prices inherit the opportunity cost of other uses.  Everything the lone man in the woods makes is wrought from what he can find or make.  Like Economics, many biological urges are meaningless outside the context of human society.  Even the most basic instinct of reproduction requires that two individuals cooperate and operate in the same space for at least a few minutes.  The sum of how actors act on biological urges often makes the difference of whether we have a civilization or chaos.  Indeed biology may be guiding factor on the shape of complexity but it cannot be separated from civilization itself.  One cannot take the human nature out of human civilization. The majority of economics and biology fall within the context of social order.  Both subjects are essential to a sophisticated understanding of society but none-the-less unimportant for the most basic definition of social order.  As such while they are important I will avoid discussing both in this post.

When observing a modern western civilization it can be much more challenging to distinguish uphill from down. Yet without so much as the concept of entropy humans have perpetuated increasingly complex forms of society.  The forms of organizations that have survived have tended to be both symbiotic with their hosts and capable of being self-constructing.  Despite mistakes and circuitous routes humans have found their way up the hill accomplishing things that no one person could predict or even comprehend.  We know that most of these organizations were symbiotic by the very fact that when one goes back not too far most people could not have afforded the luxury of maintaining a parasitic system of living.  People, not that long ago, would have starved to death or have been killed under a parasitic organization.  Often when persuaded of the immediacy of their cause, splintering religious sects would throw away the systems that had sustained them only to have their cause wiped from the face of the earth only to be remembered as a blight that was exterminated.  For certain, the slippery slope argument only appeals to those who not only care about tomorrow, but next year and the year after that.  At its most basic level it is an appeal to history to not deteriorate our future.  Humans in sum naturally work towards something greater.  Systems, processes, ideas and technology can long outlast their creators, writers and inventors.  For mortals the ability to perpetuate systems for longer than one lifetime allows for systems to be built which can be both tested and applied without the full understanding of the interstitial actors.  If a system is dependent not only on the understanding of the actors but their mortality it can only be as complex as the actors understanding of the world but more importantly can only adapt to and incorporate trends and information which can be reasonably observed in a lifetime.  The history of the systems which make up the modern world or that made up the world 200 years ago have been selected upon for at least a 100 generations.  However slow the accumulation of knowledge has been, it cannot help but dwarf what can be known or at the very least tested within a lifetime.  Along the edges of our particular ledge what cavernous pitfalls await us that visible only from the perspective of a few generations?  What should frighten us are not the sheer cliffs around us but gentle slopes which allow us to lope unsuspecting to our slaughter.

Even for the most astute or dedicated of researchers they can only work with trends which can be extrapolated from past data.  No researcher can predict the unpredictable, events which have never happened before, did happen but were never recorded, or are simply too infrequent to notice a merit from the records.  Any actor at a pivotal position in society cannot necessarily predict a change’s interactions with society given the myriad differences between his data and the current state of the cohort.  This uncertainty is ever present in human culture.  An additional confounding factor to uncertainty is that which we know but we can’t explain.  For any given person there a plenty of actions which we complete successfully for which we cannot fully explain why or how we do it.  In addition even if we were to systematically attempt to write down what we know, even on a single topic; it would be a limited subset of our total knowledge.  Much of our knowledge is highly contextual.  That is, it sleeps within our brain until the right moment when it is needed (many times it doesn’t even appear till later at an inappropriate moment).  I can tell you a stop sign is red, but I would probably forget to mention it if you asked me to write down all that I know.   Scaling up “you know more than you can explain.” to family level.  There is plenty that is known but cannot be explained or even consciously thought of as knowledge.  To change something consciously is to risk contradicting what one unconsciously “knows” to be true.  This is not to say that we are fundamentally limited by uncertainty.  Most actions or changes adopted within the lifetime of the average family are risky but to a negligible degree.  They make changes based on previous heuristics which afford limited risk.  This accumulation of heuristics, formal and informal traditions, and social technology are the foundation of what seems like a completely spontaneously order of raising a family.  The order may be emergent, but it is not spontaneous.  It emerges from the accumulated knowledge of a population but the knowledge is of the older hard won kind.  For this reason when an outsider attempts to change some arrangement, they risk unintended consequences.  Arrangements which are superficially similar can yield very different results for reasons which are not readily apparent.

Those who see human society as malleable, if they reason at all, mistake the ease of emergent organization for a general anti-fragility of society.  Indeed when relying on hard won social knowledge society is robust. Within a state of “nature” however, humans do not create spontaneous orders of a complexity anywhere approaching modern society.  The slippery slope among many things is a valid appeal to the law of unintended consequences.  If we don’t know where the cliff is, or for that matter which way the slope is going we probably shouldn’t be wandering around too far.  This seems like a paralyzing position for a society, and in and of itself it is.  Never the less, without much radicalism or revolution human society still managed to continue to acquire (in the long run) social and material capital.  Often given that humanity operates within a complex unknown order it is hard to know which pieces of culture or tradition are foundational or merely a decoration.  To remove or tinker with anything, especially from an a priori perspective, risks breaking some part of the system.  For this reason robust systems are changed from the heuristics, experience and traditions existing and not ex nihlo.  Often working with a society is like doing surgery in the dark.  It is probably best to do nothing but if something must be done it is best done in small doses and with plenty of time given to see if there are adverse effects (or improvement). The law of unintended consequences is the simplest and most powerful argument for the slippery slope.  That we have done something a way before denotes that it might be difficult to change it partially without bad consequences.  Knowing which consequences will come from any given change is not as important as understanding that the results are unpredictable. Society’s robustness is a function of its inherited knowledge, not any innate property of humanity.  As long as the systems are functioning and intact they are robust, but play with the rules, incentives or culture and society can quickly spiral out of control.  Any self-correction featured in the system is dependent on the system itself and feedback is often much slower than the pace of change.  This creates the issue which leads to the contesting of the concept of the slippery slope itself.  Consequences to actions often are so far removed in time from the changes that it is difficult to establish cause and effect.  To the antagonistic actor this opens up opportunities to continually push changes and accrue none of the blame for the consequences and fall out.  Often savvy actors will perpetuate social norms within their own circle while destroying them outside of their circle.  The same people who are capable of maintaining symbiotic but costly cultural norms in an antagonistic environment are often the ones creating the antagonism.  This lack of introspection is a feature of their ideology.  The victims of social decay are often those who needed it the most.  Solipsism a sin for which society will pay for dearly.

The lesson of the sheer amount of uncertainty surrounding social order is that the older and more steadfast the norms the more likely it is to be symbiotic and not parasitic.  No norm is without cost, and indeed some are very costly, but by the very nature of being perpetuated by successful society they demonstrate that they are likely to provide a net gain for their adopters.  Norms exist to serve purposes and they are not random or arbitrary.  These purposes are functional and symbiotic with their carriers.  Making a slippery slope argument is not a claim which needs proof but a valid tool which should be used as often as possible.  To anyone trying to make changes to long running institutions the burden of proof is on them.  In order to change a norm one must demonstrate its purpose, its corollary and tertiary effects.  That task is honestly nearly impossible.  A need for changing society is an extraordinary claim, which requires extraordinary evidence.  From the difficulty of the task at hand it is clear society cannot be changed by the conscious decisions of a few actors but needs guidance from the inherited knowledge of generations.

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7 thoughts on “Rehabilitating the Slippery Slope

  1. “To anyone trying to make changes to long running institutions the burden of proof is on them. In order to change a norm one must demonstrate its purpose, its corollary and tertiary effects. That task is honestly nearly impossible. A need for changing society is an extraordinary claim, which requires extraordinary evidence. From the difficulty of the task at hand it is clear society cannot be changed by the conscious decisions of a few actors but needs guidance from the inherited knowledge of generations.”

    That pretty much says it all. Thanks for this insightful article.

  2. I’ve always wondered why this is even called a fallacy. To call the ‘slippery slope’ a fallacy seems to be, at base, denying cause and effect.

    What I think you might be able to say is that slippery slopes are ALWAYS descending in one direction, towards degeneration. This is why it is a ‘slippery’ slope and not just a slope. Wherever you are on the slippery slope, the direction in which you are slipping is the ‘degenerative descent’.

    So, for instance, the Left cannot argue that re-banning same-sex marriage would (as per slipper slope) lead to the banning of adultery. The slope does not slip towards more ordered practices like this. If that did occur, it would be due to factors that were unrelated to a slippery slope. However, because same sex marriage points downwards towards sexual anarchy, it is fair to use the argument to say that it would lead to incestuous marriages being legitimized in the future.

    • “So, for instance, the Left cannot argue that re-banning same-sex marriage would (as per slipper slope) lead to the banning of adultery. The slope does not slip towards more ordered practices like this.”

      I agree. They will still make this argument though ( even if they shouldn’t ). They have their own version the authoritarian slippery slope.

  3. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/06/07) | The Reactivity Place

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