Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

4.2: Slippery Slope Fallacies

  • Page ID
    26822
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    Slippery slope fallacies depend on the concept of vagueness. When a concept or claim is vague, it means that we don’t know precisely what claim is being made, or what the boundaries of the concept are. The classic example used to illustrate vagueness is the “sorites paradox.” The term “sorites” is the Greek term for “heap” and the paradox comes from ancient Greek philosophy. Here is the paradox. I will give you two claims that each sound very plausible, but in fact lead to a paradox. Here are the two claims:

    1. One grain of sand is not a heap of sand.
    2. If I start with something that is not a heap of sand, then adding one grain of sand to that will not create a heap of sand.

    For example, two grains of sand is not a heap, thus (by the second claim) neither is three grains of sand. But since three grains of sand is not a heap then (by the second claim again) neither is four grains of sand. You can probably see where this is going. By continuing to add one grain of sand over and over, I will eventually end up with something that is clearly a heap of sand, but that won’t
    be counted as a heap of sand if we accept both claims 1 and 2 above.

    Philosophers continue to argue and debate about how to resolve the sorites paradox, but the point for us is just to illustrate the concept of vagueness. The concept “heap” is a vague concept in this example. But so are so many other concepts, such a color concepts (red, yellow, green, etc.), moral concepts (right, wrong, good, bad), and just about any other concept you can think of. The one domain that seems to be unaffected by vagueness is mathematical and logical concepts. There are two fallacies related to vagueness: the causal slippery slope and the conceptual slippery slope. We’ll cover the conceptual slippery slope first since it relates most closely to the concept of vagueness I’ve explained above.

    Conceptual Slippery Slope

    It may be true that there is no essential difference between 499 grains of sand and 500 grains of sand. But even if that is so, it doesn’t follow that there is no difference between 1 grain of sand and 5 billion grains of sand. In general, just because we cannot draw a distinction between A and B, and we cannot draw a distinction between B and C, it doesn’t mean we cannot draw a distinction between A and C. Here is an example of a conceptual slippery slope fallacy.

    It is illegal for anyone under 21 to drink alcohol. But there is no difference between someone who is 21 and someone who is 20 years 11 months old. So there is nothing wrong with someone who is 20 years and 11 months old drinking. But since there is no real distinction between being one month older and one month younger, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with drinking at any age. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with allowing a 10 year old to drink alcohol.

    Imagine the life of an individual in stages of 1 month intervals. Even if it is true that there is no distinction in kind between any one of those stages, it doesn’t follow that there isn’t a distinction to be drawn at the extremes of either end. Clearly there is a difference between a 5 year old and a 25 year old—a distinction in kind that is relevant to whether they should be allowed to drink alcohol. The conceptual slippery slope fallacy assumes that because we cannot draw a distinction between adjacent stages, we cannot draw a distinction at all between any stages. One clear way of illustrating this is with color. Think of a color spectrum from purple to red to orange to yellow to green to blue. Each color grades into the next without there being any distinguishable boundaries between the colors—a continuous spectrum. Even if it is true that for any two adjacent hues on the color wheel, we cannot distinguish between the two, it doesn’t follow from this that there is no distinction to be drawn between any two portions of the color wheel, because then we’d be committed to saying that there is no distinguishable difference between purple and yellow! The example of the color spectrum illustrates the general point that just because the boundaries between very similar things on a spectrum are vague, it doesn’t follow that there are no differences between any two things on that spectrum.

    Whether or not one will identify an argument as committing a conceptual slippery slope fallacy, depends on the other things one believes about the world. Thus, whether or not a conceptual slippery slope fallacy has been committed will often be a matter of some debate. It will itself be vague. Here is a good example that illustrates this point.

    People are found not guilty by reason of insanity when they cannot avoid breaking the law. But people who are brought up in certain deprived social circumstances are not much more able than the legally insane to avoid breaking the law. So we should not find such individuals guilty any more than those who are legally insane.

    Whether there is conceptual slippery slope fallacy here depends on what you think about a host of other things, including individual responsibility, free will, the psychological and social effects of deprived social circumstances such as poverty, lack of opportunity, abuse, etc. Some people may think that there are big differences between those who are legally insane and those who grow up in deprived social circumstances. Others may not think the differences are so great. The issues here are subtle, sensitive, and complex, which is why it is difficult to determine whether there is any fallacy here or not. If the differences between those who are insane and those who are the product of deprived social circumstances turn out to be like the differences between one shade of yellow and an adjacent shade of yellow, then there is no fallacy here. But if the differences turn out to be analogous to those between yellow and green (i.e., with many distinguishable stages of difference between) then there would indeed be a conceptual slippery slope fallacy here. The difficulty of distinguishing instances of the conceptual slippery slope fallacy, and the fact that distinguishing it requires us to draw on our knowledge about the world, shows that the conceptual slippery slope fallacy is an informal fallacy.

    Causal slippery slope fallacy

    The causal slippery slope fallacy is committed when one event is said to lead to some other (usually disastrous) event via a chain of intermediary events. If you have ever seen Direct TV’s “get rid of cable” commercials, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about you should Google it right now and find out. They’re quite funny.) Here is an example of a causal slippery slope fallacy (it is adapted from one of the Direct TV commercials):

    If you use cable, your cable will probably go on the fritz. If your cable is on the fritz, you will probably get frustrated. When you get frustrated you will probably hit the table. When you hit the table, your young daughter will probably imitate you. When your daughter imitates you, she will probably get thrown out of school. When she gets thrown out of school, she will probably meet undesirables. When she meets undesirables, she will probably marry undesirables. When she marries undesirables, you will probably have a grandson with a dog collar. Therefore, if you use cable, you will probably have a grandson with dog collar.

    This example is silly and absurd, yes. But it illustrates the causal slippery slope fallacy. Slippery slope fallacies are always made up of a series of conjunctions of probabilistic conditional statements that link the first event to the last event. A causal slippery slope fallacy is committed when one assumes that just because each individual conditional statement is probable, the conditional that links the first event to the last event is also probable. Even if we grant that each “link” in the chain is individually probable, it doesn’t follow that the whole chain (or the conditional that links the first event to the last event) is probable. Suppose, for the sake of the argument, we assign probabilities to each “link” or conditional statement, like this. (I have italicized the consequents of the conditionals and assigned high conditional probabilities to them. The high probability is for the sake of the argument; I don’t actually think these things are as probable as I’ve assumed here.)

    If you use cable, then your cable will probably go on the fritz (.9)
    If your cable is on the fritz, then you will probably get angry (.9)
    If you get angry, then you will probably hit the table (.9)
    If you hit the table, your daughter will probably imitate you (.8)
    If your daughter imitates you, she will probably be kicked out of school (.8)
    If she is kicked out of school, she will probably meet undesirables (.9)
    If she meets undesirables, she will probably marry undesirables (.8)
    If she marries undesirables, you will probably have a grandson with a dog collar (.8)

    However, even if we grant the probabilities of each link in the chain is high (80-90% probable), the conclusion doesn’t even reach a probability higher than chance. Recall that in order to figure the probability of a conjunction, we must multiply the probability of each conjunct:

    (.9) × (.9) × (.9) × (.8) × (.8) × (.9) × (.8) × (.8) = .27

    That means the probability of the conclusion (i.e., that if you use cable, you will have a grandson with a dog collar) is only 27%, despite the fact that each conditional has a relatively high probability! The causal slippery slope fallacy is actually a formal probabilistic fallacy and so could have been discussed in chapter 3 with the other formal probabilistic fallacies. What makes it a formal rather than informal fallacy is that we can identify it without even having to know what the sentences of the argument mean. I could just have easily written out a nonsense argument comprised of series of probabilistic conditional statements. But I would still have been able to identify the causal slippery slope fallacy because I would have seen that there was a series of probabilistic conditional statements leading to a claim that the conclusion of the series was also probable. That is enough to tell me that there is a causal slippery slope fallacy, even if I don’t really understand the meanings of the conditional statements.

    It is helpful to contrast the causal slippery slope fallacy with the valid form of inference, hypothetical syllogism. Recall that a hypothetical syllogism has the following kind of form:

    A ⊃ B
    B ⊃ C
    C ⊃ D
    D ⊃ E
    ∴ A ⊃ E

    The only difference between this and the causal slippery slope fallacy is that whereas in the hypothetical syllogism, the link between each component is certain, in a causal slippery slope fallacy, the link between each event is probabilistic. It is the fact that each link is probabilistic that accounts for the fallacy. One way of putting this is point is that probability is not transitive. Just because A makes B probable and B makes C probable and C makes X probable, it doesn’t follow that A makes X probable. In contrast, when the links are certain rather than probable, then if A always leads to B and B always leads to C and C always leads to X, then it has to be the case that A always leads to X.


    This page titled 4.2: Slippery Slope Fallacies is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Matthew Van Cleave.

    • Was this article helpful?