Down with the ‘slippery slope’ argument

The prevalence of this nonsense speaks volumes about society’s loss of faith in the human subject.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Do you realise that if you give your child a parental smack today, it could lead to you going wild and cracking her head open tomorrow? That is the latest version of the ‘slippery slope’ argument, an irrational notion that now crops up in British debates about everything from childcare to genetic science.

The slippery slope argument supports a climate of cynicism, over-caution and mistrust in public debate today. The sooner we send it down the chute to oblivion, the better it will be for all of us who want to keep our feet on the firm ground of a rational, civilised society.

This week the UK health select committee of MPs called for tighter legal controls on parental smacking. Explaining why, committee chairman David Hinchcliffe reportedly described the torture and murder of eight-year old Victoria Climbie by a great aunt and her boyfriend in 2000 as ‘an escalation of discipline and punishment which had started with little slaps’ (1). This has been widely cited as a ‘slippery slope’ argument for a ban on smacking by parents.

But where did this ‘little slaps led to killing’ evidence originate? In the words of Carl Manning, Victoria’s murderer, explaining himself to the Climbie inquiry. This brute is the example of ‘parental behaviour’ that Hinchcliffe and his fellow MPs want to use to ban smacking. He has set the standard by which they appear to believe all parents should be judged. They want the law reorganised around the assumption that we are all but a few little smacks away from becoming the next Carl Manning.

The slippery slope argument is always based on that sort of lowlife view of our humanity. The underlying assumption is that we cannot be trusted to know where to draw a line, that we cannot control our behaviour without supervision. So a drink, a bet or a puff of cannabis can put us on the slippery slope to dangerous addictions. In which case, the advocates of the slippery slope case consider it simply too risky to leave adults to make our own decisions about how we raise our children or live our lives.

Sometimes the implications are even more explicit. Culture minister Kim Howells recently declared that failure to tackle the problem of gangsta rap lyrics would leave Britain on ‘a very slippery slope’ to more gun crime (2). For Howells, rap music fans appear to be little more than attack dogs, ready to tear out the throat of civilised society at a signal from their So Solid Crew CD.

The slippery slope argument has also become the mantra of bio- and medical ethicists, warning of potential dangers that allegedly lurk behind scientific developments in relation to cloning, stem cell research, or genetic testing. The birth of baby Jamie Whitaker with the genetic make-up that could save his dying brother Charlie might seem to many of us like a cause for celebration (see Life chances, by John Gillott). But for the editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics, the use of genetic screening in this case showed instead that we are ‘some way down a slippery slope’ to God knows where (3). Other warnings of ‘designer babies’ carry dark undertones about Nazi science.

These people complain that science is running ahead of the ethical debate. In truth it is the other way around. The doom mongering about a slippery slope to techno-disaster is way ahead of any actual scientific advance, blocking the path to medical progress that could potentially benefit human health and save lives. How that can be considered the moral argument is beyond me. Surely we should favour instead a human-centred morality, which sees right as being on the side of that which can change our lives for the better.

When exactly did we lose the ability to draw a line between right and wrong, so that we are supposed to swallow the slippery slope argument instead? How did trusting in our own common sense come to be replaced by nonsense about a ‘continuum of violence’, which sees a smack and child abuse, or indeed penetrative sex and rape, simply as two points on the same line of suspect human behaviour? The prevalence of different forms of the slippery slope argument speaks volumes about contemporary society’s loss of faith in the human subject.

It could be argued that the slippery slope between right and wrong is actually where we all live our lives, taking decisions that will affect others and ourselves every day. What stops us from sliding down into the mire is our ability to make responsible judgements as morally autonomous adults. Those who demand tougher safeguards against us making the ‘wrong’ decisions deny us that autonomy. And in treating us as out-of-control infants, they further undermine our capacity to act like grown-ups and take responsibility for our own actions. The slippery slope turns out to be a vicious circle.

If people are not to be trusted to make those judgements for ourselves, the alternative will always be more regulation and control, a creeping advance of state and third-party interference in everything from how parents raise their children to how scientists conduct their research. Now that’s what I would call a dangerous slippery slope – and one that we are already ‘some way down’.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

(1) Pressure grows over smacking law, BBC News, 24 June 2003

(2) See Yesterday in Parliament, Guardian, 4 February 2003

(3) We are some way down a slippery slope, Richard Nicholson, Guardian, 20 June 2003

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Topics Politics


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