7 Slippery Slope Fallacy Examples (And How to Counter Them)
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Say you’re debating a friend over the topic of marijuana legalization and they say this:
“If we legalize recreational marijuana, then marijuana will become normalized in public life. If marijuana is normalized, that will make it more likely that children and other impressionable people will partake. Before you know it, everyone will be doing drugs! Therefore, we should not legalize recreational marijuana.”
Now, your spidey senses might be tingling a bit. You can definitely tell something is wrong with the above argument, but you can’t quite put your finger on exactly what.
This argument is an example of a slippery slope fallacy. A slippery slope fallacy is a fallacious pattern of reasoning that claims that allowing some small event now will eventually culminate in a significant and (usually) negative final effect later. Slippery slope arguments are fallacious when the claimed links between the events are unlikely or exaggerated.
The above argument is a slippery slope fallacy because it posits a sequence of events that are weakly connected. In response, you could argue that it’s unlikely legalizing marijuana will make children more likely to use it. After all, there are lots of recreational substances, such as alcohol, that are legal and controlled to stay out of the hands of children and other vulnerable people.
You could also argue that legalizing some substance won’t necessarily make it more popular in the public consciousness. The main point is that slippery slope-style arguments can be evaluated based on the strength of the claimed links between events. If those links are weak, then the argument is likely committing a slippery slope fallacy.
Today, we are going to talk about slippery slope fallacy examples and how to avoid them in your everyday life.
What You Will Learn
- Logical Form of a Slippery Slope Fallacy
- Types of Slippery Slope Arguments
- 7 Slippery Slope Examples and Counterarguments
- Why Are Slippery Slopes Fallacies?
- Valid Slippery Slope Arguments
- How to Respond to Slippery Slope Arguments
- Final Thoughts on Slippery Slope Fallacies
Logical Form of a Slippery Slope Fallacy
Slippery slope-slope style arguments can are a kind of hypothetical reasoning and are made up of conditional claims:
Where A is the first event, Z is the final event, and B-Y are the intermediate links in the chain.
This argument pattern is fallacious when the claimed links between the events in the chain are weak or non-existent. In other words, the argument pattern fails if there is little reason to think that A will lead to B, or that B will lead C, and so on.
To learn more about fallacious arguments, here's an in-depth article about logical fallacies and why it's important to recognize them.
Types of Slippery Slope Arguments
Philosophers have identified 3 major kinds of slippery slope fallacies:
It can be difficult to tell the types apart in normal conversation and many commonly encountered slippery slope arguments involve aspects of all three types. Despite their differences, all 3 types of slippery slope arguments share 3 core features:
7 Slippery Slope Examples and Counterarguments
Here are some examples of slippery slope arguments in the wild. You’ll have likely heard some forms of at least one or two arguments below.
Argument: “We cannot allow more taxation, as any taxation incentivizes more taxation, which will inevitably lead to the loss of all private property and tyranny.”
Counterargument: This causal/precedential slippery slope pattern is commonly seen in arguments about whether we should increase or decrease taxes. This argument can be considered fallacious as there is little reason to think that raising taxes in some areas will cause a spiraling descent into tyranny and communism. After all, taxes and forms of private property have coexisted in pretty much every single society throughout history.
You could also argue that merely raising taxes on some class of individuals does not mean raising taxes on everyone, which is what the fallacious argument claims. The argument is even more unconvincing when you realize that, according to its own logic, we shouldn’t have any taxes whatsoever. That claim is just as unlikely as the claim that we should tax away everyone’s stuff.
Argument: “Marriage is defined as a man and a woman. If we change the definition to include gay couples then we will soon change it again to cover other things. The next thing you know, we will have people wanting to marry animals and inanimate objects. Therefore, we should not change the definition of marriage.”
Counterargument: This argument combines aspects of a conceptual and precedential slippery slope fallacy. It claims that changing the definition of marriage to include gay couples is no different than changing the definition to allow people to marry animals and objects. The argument leaves out the possibility that there is a reasonable definition that explains why animals and inanimate objects can be excluded from the category of marriage. For instance, a prerequisite of marriage is that it must take place between two consenting adults. Animals and objects are neither of those things so they can be excluded.
3. Catastrophizing Thoughts
Argument: “If I fail this test, then I will flunk the class. If I flunk the class, I will flunk out of school entirely. If I flunk out entirely then my entire future is ruined and I will never be able to get a good job and provide for a family!”
Counterargument: Pretty much everyone is guilty of “catastrophizing” like this sometimes. We tell ourselves that one bad thing will inevitably lead to another and another until our worst nightmares come true. The key to shaking this kind of causal slippery slope is realizing that it's fallacious! One bad event does not necessarily mean more bad events will happen. And a single bad event is unlikely to lead directly to disastrous consequences. It may not be true that the future will be like the past; the future could be different. Overcoming these kinds of limiting beliefs is important to navigate the world effectively.
Slippery slope arguments are all over the place in political discussions. Here is one you may have heard recently in the news:
Argument: “If we allow the government to remove Confederate statues from public places, then it’s a short road to the government trying to erase and censor history. Next thing you know, all our history textbooks will be altered to remove the truth. You don’t want the government telling you what to think is true, do you?”
Counterargument: Again, this argument assumes that a small event will have catastrophic consequences down the road. This argument shares features of a causal and precedential slippery slope. Removing statues meant to venerate Confederate generals is not erasing history and is unlikely to cause massive government censorship of history. Historical facts about the Confederacy are still kept track of in libraries and museums and there is no movement to censor those things. The simple act of removing some historical artifact from a public place does not in itself count as censorship.
Argument: “If we provide free healthcare then where does it stop? Soon people will be asking for free cars, free cell phones, free food, and free everything. The more people get free stuff, the less they will work which will eventually lead to economic ruin.”
Counterargument: This argument has features of a causal and precedential slippery slope. It can be challenged because there is little empirical evidence to support its conclusions. There are several modern countries with universal healthcare that have healthy economies and don’t have a problem of people wanting too much free stuff. There is actually evidence that universal health care schemes are good for the economy and that welfare programs do not discourage people from looking for work.
Argument: “We should not allow doctors to end the life of terminally ill patients because if we do, it’s not far off from letting doctors euthanize healthy people or people that they believe to be genetically inferior. That's what the Nazis did after all!”
Counterargument: This argument combines aspects of a conceptual, precedential, and causal slippery slope. By using gradated language, it obscures the fact that there is a clear conceptual distinction between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia is carried out under the express wishes of the patient and occurs with their consent. Involuntary euthanasia does not involve the consent of the patient. Involuntary euthanasia is murder and murder is already illegal. Allowing voluntary euthanasia won’t change that.
7. Rules and Exceptions
Argument: “I cannot make an exception for you, or else I would have to make an exception for others in the class. Eventually, I would have to make exceptions for everyone else and then the rules would be utterly meaningless!”
Counterargument: This argument is a precedential slippery slope. It’s fallacious because it treats the issue as if everyone always has to be granted an exception equally. Sometimes exceptions to rules are reasonable and will not set a precedent for disassembling the rules. Various laws have exceptions but the laws still manage to function. What matters is the reason for granting the exception. In extenuating circumstances, it may be correct to give an exception to some established rules.
Why Are Slippery Slopes Fallacies?
Slippery slope-style arguments are often fallacious, but the reason why they are fallacious differs depending on the kind of slippery slope argument it is.
For Causal Slopes
Causal slippery slopes can be fallacious when there is little evidence to support the idea that one event will cause another and so on. Fallacious causal slippery slope arguments rely on exaggerating the strength or severity of causal connections between events.
Even if some hypothetical sequence of events is possible, the argument is fallacious if it is unlikely that the sequence of events will actually happen. If there is little evidence that the presented causal chain is likely, then the argument is weak.
For Conceptual Slopes
Conceptual slippery slope arguments can be fallacious as they deny that 2 categories of things are different because you can transition from one to the other through a series of small steps. Conceptual slippery slope fallacies ignore the possibility that we can differentiate between things even if they exist on a continuum or spectrum.
A good counterexample to this type of thinking is the category “bald.” There is no definite number of hairs that separates someone from being bald or not bald, but we can recognize clear instances of the two categories. Mr. Clean is bald and Cousin It is not bald. Conceptual slippery slopes share features in common with the continuum fallacy (sometimes called a Sorites fallacy).
For Precedential Slopes
Precedential slippery slope arguments are based on saying that some current behavior or event will set a precedent for future behavior or events. The idea is that if we treat a seemingly small thing a certain way now, we will have to treat a significant thing the same way in the future.
Precedential slippery slope arguments can be fallacious as they ignore the possibility that we can determine when precedent should or should not be followed. They also assume that the beginning and ending positions of the argument are similar enough that precedent would apply between them.
Precedential slippery slopes are usually combined with all-or-nothing thinking and often start by assuming a false dichotomy between two options. Precedential-style slope arguments might be valid in specific contexts (e.g. legal sphere) where precedent plays an integral role in making decisions.
Valid Slippery Slope Arguments
Slippery slope arguments are not inherently fallacious. Sometimes, a slippery slope argument can be an instance of valid reasoning. Consider the following argument:
“We can’t let people throw their trash on the sidewalk because, over time, that could build up to a big public nuisance and health hazard.”
This argument has a slippery slope structure. It claims that allowing some relatively small event (letting people litter) will lead to some larger negative effects (public annoyance and health issues). In this case, the argument is persuasive as there is good reason to believe that things will actually unfold in that manner.
Whether or not a slippery slope-style argument is reasonable depends on a number of factors including the type of slippery slope argument it is and the context of the argument. In some cases, it might not be clear if the argument is fallacious or not.
How to Respond to Slippery Slope Arguments
The exact way to respond to a slippery slope argument depends on the kind of slippery slope it is and what the specifics of the argument are. Here are a few general approaches to keep in mind:
Ask your opponent for justification
If your opponent did not provide any evidence to support their suggested slope, then ask them to justify their view. The burden of proof is on them to make their case.
Highlight missing parts of the chain
Point out how the argument leaves out a lot of events between the first and last points. Pointing out these missing pieces can lessen the bite of the argument.
Emphasize the distance between the start and end
Pointing out a significant difference between the start point and endpoint might give a reason to think it’s justified to treat them in two different ways. Pointing out the distance between the two also makes it easier to see how it's unlikely one will lead to the other.
Stop the slope in its tracks
Try to find a reason that we can stop the slope in the transition period. There might be a good reason to think the slope will not proceed all the way if there is a principled stopping point. Show how you can prevent the initial event from leading to the final event.
Call out underlying premises
Sometimes a slippery slope is based on false assumptions. Addressing these incorrect assumptions directly might be more helpful than explaining the problem with the slope.
Provide a counterexample
If possible, present a counterexample to show your opponent’s logic is flawed. One way to do this might be to point out how slippery slope arguments can often be applied in both directions of an issue. For example, if your opponent argues that legalizing gay marriage will lead to obscene behavior, you could just as easily claim that restricting gay marriage could lead to restrictions on other kinds of marriage, eventually banning it altogether.
Final Thoughts on Slippery Slope Fallacies
Slippery slope fallacies are fairly common in everyday life and often go undetected. One explanation for our tendency to think in this fallacious manner has to do with how our brains are wired for making predictions. Humans have a natural knack for visualizing lines of possibilities, but this talent can get in the way of our rational faculties. We jump from inference to inference and might not slow down to ask if we are justified in making those inferences.
Fallacious thinking can have serious negative consequences, so educating your critical thinking faculties to recognize fallacies like slippery slopes is an invaluable skill. Like any muscle, the brain needs practice to get stronger. Identifying instances of slippery slope argument in everyday life will help you make more effective decisions, promote self-awareness, and liberate you from constrained thinking habits.
Finally, if you're interested in learning about other types of fallacies, here's our in-depth look at the straw man fallacy.
Alex Bolano is a freelance writer based out of St. Louis. He holds his MA in Philosophy and writes on topics relating to science, culture, politics, finance, and education. He enjoys playing video games and researching the latest trends in science and technology.