Slippery Slope Fallacy

Written: 1999-09-19
Last revised: 2002-02-06

When I first posted my description of the Slippery Slope fallacy, I had a sneaking suspicion that some NRA supporters would get defensive at the fact that I cited a common pro-NRA argument as an example of the slippery slope fallacy. Gun control is a political hot button in America, and people on both sides of the argument are often incapable of separating emotions from logic when it comes to this particular issue. It seems to be difficult to point out logical fallacies in certain NRA arguments without having people assume that I want to ban all guns, or that I simply hate the NRA. The criticisms came from two directions:

  1. Claiming that the slippery slope fallacy is not a fallacy in this case.

  2. Accusing me of strawman attacks, claiming that I misrepresented the NRA's position.

1. Why is the Slippery Slope fallacy a fallacy?

One of the criticisms I received was that the slippery slope fallacy was not really a fallacy in this case. In fact, I was challenged to explain why the slippery slope fallacy is a fallacy.

Frankly, I was a little shocked at this demand. When I wrote this page, it had not occurred to me that some people would lack an intuitive understanding of what makes the slippery slope fallacy a fallacy- call it "overestimating your audience." Therefore, allow me to explain: the slippery slope fallacy is a fallacy because it assumes the existence of intermediate causal connections between the events in a sequence. By stating that you cannot commit action A because it will inevitably lead to events B, which will in turn lead to event C and so on, the slippery slope fallacy makes the assumption that action A will directly cause event B to occur. It compounds this with the assumption that event B will cause event C to occur, and so on. If all of these causal connections don't exist, then it is fallacious to use the threat of events B through Z as justification to avoid action A.

When is the threat of a sequence of increasingly bad events not a slippery slope fallacy? It is not a slippery slope fallacy when action A really does cause event B to occur, and event B really does cause event C to occur, and so on. A direct, causal connection must be established between each and every event in the sequence in order for the argument to be valid. For example, if I point a loaded handgun at your heart and fire it, then I will blow a gaping hole through your heart. If I blow a gaping hole through your heart, you will suffer massive internal hemorrhaging and total heart failure. If you suffer massive internal hemorrhaging and total heart failure, your blood will stop pumping through your arteries. If your blood stops pumping through your arteries, then the supply of nutrients and oxygen to your body's cells will stop. If the supply of nutrients and oxygen to your body's cells stops, then you will die. Therefore, I shouldn't shoot you through the heart. That argument is not a slippery slope fallacy because each event in the sequence directly causes the next event. There are no assumed intermediate causal connections. Every single intermediate causal connection can be verified with controlled experimentation if necessary.

Does my paraphrased pro-NRA argument live up to this standard? In a word, no. There is no established causal connection between handgun registration and handgun confiscation. There is no established causal connection between handgun confiscation and total bans on all firearms. There is no established causal connection between firearm bans and the establishment of dictatorial police states. The NRA's supporters claim that there are historical precedents for one event preceding the next, but such precedents do not constitute proof of causality! (see the "post hoc" false cause fallacy) Therefore, it is fallacious to claim that the threat of handgun confiscation, total firearm bans, or the establishment of a police state should be regarded as deterrent against handgun registration. Handgun registration will have to debated on its own merits, not on the merits of various events which will supposedly follow it. I am not trying to make statements on whether handgun registration is good or bad- this website is about science and science fiction, not about politics. But a logical fallacy is a logical fallacy regardless of whether you agree with the motives of the people who are using it.

Historical precedents are very heavily cited as proof of the causal connection, but that usage is merely an example of another logical fallacy: the "post hoc" false cause fallacy. The following is a quote from one of the negative E-mails I received:

"When the NRA claims that one little compromise leads to more concessions to the anti-gun lobby, they're not slippery sloping, and they're not lying. They're speaking from experience, based on everything the anti-gun lobby has done regarding past compromises."

NRA supporters and spokespeople often cite other historical examples such as Nazi Germany, which forcibly disarmed persecuted Jews before imprisoning and murdering them (again subscribing to the "post hoc" false cause mentality). When confronted with examples in which gun registration was not followed by total gun confiscation (such as my own native Canada), those apparent disproofs of causality are neatly dismissed with vague assurances that "it hasn't happened yet, but it will". No better example of an unfalsifiable tautology could be found.

Misuse of precedent is a legitimate tactic in a court of law, but not in the world of science (or the philosophy of logic, for that matter). The fact that event A was followed by event B in the past is not proof that event A caused event B! Every weekday morning, I urinate and then I put on my clothes and go to work. Does this long string of historical precedents mean that urination causes me to go to work? Does it mean that if I hold my urine on a weekday morning, I won't have to go to work? Since I tend to suffer a lot of stress while I'm at work, does this mean that urination puts a sequence of events in motion which inevitably lead to stress? Does this mean that I can avoid stress if I hold my urine? Please, regardless of whether you like the NRA or not, just try to comprehend the concept of the slippery slope fallacy: what makes it a fallacy, and why it should be avoided.

2. Strawman Attack

There are two things I would like to point out here:

  1. People who accuse me of strawman attacks seem to misunderstand, since they think that I'm attacking the NRA. I'm not attempting to attack the NRA, through misrepresentation or otherwise. Read my lips: I am a Canadian. I am therefore totally unaffected by American gun control laws, and I don't care about the NRA. The real target of my article was not the NRA, but the logical fallacy itself (not to mention the people who think it's not a fallacy).

  2. For what it's worth, the NRA does appear to subscribe to that fallacy. A very recent example is quoted below, although irresponsible statements have been made by other NRA spokespeople in the past.

In the August 23, 1999 issue of Newsweek Magazine, Wayne Lapierre (the NRA's executive vice president) was interviewed about gun control. The following exchange occurred:

Interviewer: "Why are you so opposed to licensing gun owners?"

Lapierre: "People believe they have a constitutional right and a freedom to own guns in this country. And they don't want thir names on government lists. They know what the next step is. It's a knock on the door confiscating their guns ... I'll tell you what's going to happen with a registration system and a licensing system: a lot of duck hunters' guns are going to suddenly fall off the canoe into the water. They're never going to register them and they're never going to license them ... You're going to have massive civil disobedience on a scale that you've never seen. Why do they want to pass a law that puts the American public in that position?"

: "Why do you think they want to do it?"

: "I think the real target is the Second Amendment ... I think the ultimate target is to take away the freedom and take away the Second Amendment."

If you support the NRA and you don't like the idea that they're using slippery slope fallacies in their arguments, then complain to people like Mr. Lapierre rather than shooting the messenger. He states quite clearly that he believes gun registration should be stopped because of the spectre of an entirely separate event (gun confiscation and the elimination of certain constitutional freedoms), without even attempting to establish a causal connection.

The "Facilitation" defense

More than one NRA defender has criticized this article with the "facilitation" argument. They admit that gun registration does not cause gun confiscation, much less this ludicrous slippery slope to totalitarianism that the NRA bandies about as its bogeyman of choice, but they argue that it facilitates gun confiscation (as well as the rest of the aforementioned slippery slope). "By giving the government a list of gun owners", they argue, "we make it easier for the government to take away all private firearms, and that's enough justification to fight gun licensing!"

Well, I've got news for those of you who would use this defense: to facilitate" and to "cause" are not the same thing! To equate one to the other is hopelessly illogical, and becomes yet another case of the false cause fallacy. Moreover, you shoot yourselves in the foot if you use this argument.

"What do you mean", you ask? It's simple: if you equate facilitation to cause, then you unwittingly throw your support behind the gun control argument! For what is a gun, if not a device expressly designed to facilitate violent acts? Could any sane person deny that a handgun makes it much easier to kill someone or commit armed robbery? Yet whenever a gun control advocate tries to tie gun ownership to gun violence, the NRA and all its defenders scream until they're blue in the face! Why? Because guns do make it easier to commit violence crimes, but as any NRA supporter will tell you, they do not cause them!

You can't have your cake and eat it too, folks. If you believe that we must stop event A if it facilitates (rather than causing) event B, then you should resign your NRA membership right now and join the gun abolition movement, because gun ownership facilitates gun violence. If you do not believe that we must stop event A if it facilitates (rather than causing) event B, then you should drop the hypocrisy and maintain the same philosophy when the subject of handgun registration is brought up, which means that you must come up with criticisms of registration itself, not fallacious claims about slippery slopes leading to totalitarian dictatorships.

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