Critical Thinking: The Slippery Slope Argument, Argument from Analogy, the Argument from Design, and Gay Marriage.

In the previous posts we looked at argument schemes that are typically employed in factual matters: generalizations, polls, general causal reasoning, particular causal reasoning, and the argument from ignorance.  In this next section we’ll look at common argument schemes used in normative (i.e., having to do with values) arguments.  Check.  it. aus…

Slippery-Slope Argument
A slippery slope argument is one where it is proposed that an initial action will initiate a causal cascade ending with a state of affairs that is universally desirable or undesirable.  The implication is that we should (or should not) do the initial action/policy because the cascade of events will necessarily occur.  

A contemporary example of a negative version of the slippery slope argument comes from arguments against gay marriage equality.  Some opponents argue that if same sex couples are allowed to marry, then there will eventually be no good reasons against people marrying animals and so society will have to permit this too. 

(Yes, people actually make this argument…can I marry my horse? )
Here’s a good clip were the slippery slope argument is mentioned explicitly:  Video of O’Reilly factor slippery slope argument. Start at 2:00

A positive version of the slippery slope argument might be something like a Libertarian argument (over-simplified version):  We should treat the principle of self-ownership as the primary governing principle, if we do, then you will remove taxation and government, then the market will cease to be distorted and people will act in their own self-interest, and people acting in their own self-interest will pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, a society of self-pulled up people will have relatively few social problems thus eliminating many of the existing ones. (Note:  We could do an over-simplified version of just about any political philosophy and show it to be weak)

So, why are these arguments not very strong?  To figure it out, lets look at the underlying structure of a slippery slope argument.  Recall that a slippery slope argument is one where it is supposed that one initial event or policy will set off an necessary unbroken sequence of causal events. 

If we formalize it, it will look like this:  

P1:  If A then B.  
P2:  If B, then C.  
P3:  If C then D.  
P4:  If D, then E.  
P5:  If E, then F. 
P6:  (So, if A then F)
C   F is a good thing, therefore we should do A. (Positive conclusion).
C* F is a bad thing, therefore we should’t do A.  (Negative conclusion). 

(We can also condense P1-P5 as a single compound premise: If A then B, if B then C, If C then D,…)

If we think back to the lecture/post on principles of general causal reasoning we will recall that it takes quite a bit of evidence to say that even a single causal argument is good (e.g. If A then B).  As you might imagine, the longer the causal chain gets, the more difficult it will become to ascertain that the links along the way are necessarily true and not open to other possible outcomes.  

Returning to our examples, in the first case, one of the causal elements has to do with the equivalence between reasons against gay marriage and reasons against animal marriage.  It doesn’t take much imagination to come up arguments for why the two types of prohibitive reasons aren’t the same (capacity for mutual informed consent for starters…).  Showing that there is a relevant distinction between the types of reasons causes a break in the causal chain, thereby rendering the argument weak.  

In our-simplified version of the Libertarian argument relies on a long causal chain that begins with the primacy of the self ownership principle and reduced taxation and government and ends with a decrease in prevailing social problems.  Along the way there are may suspect causal claims that individually might not stand too much scrutiny–especially since many of the claims are hotly debated by experts in the respective fields.  Since a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, this will have a detrimental effect on the overall strength (logical force) of the conclusion. 

Upshot:  So, what’s the overall status of slippery slope arguments?  Just like many argument schemes they can be both strong or weak depending on their constituent parts.  In the case of slippery slope arguments, a strong one will have highly plausible causal claims all linked together, culminating in a glorious well-supported conclusion about what we should or should not do.   Conversely, a weak slippery slope argument will have one or more weak causal claims in its implied premises.

Arguments From Analogy
An argument from analogy is when we draw a conclusion based on comparing one thing to another.  Arguments from analogy are often used (but not always) to argue about a complex or poorly understood subject by comparing it to one that is less complex or better understood by the audience.  They are also often used to argue for a conclusion in a controversial case based on what is accepted in an uncontroversial case by claiming the characteristics of the cases are relevantly the same. 

One of the most popular analogies is between minds/brains and computers.  (As an aside, it is only an argument from analogy if a conclusion is drawn.  Sometime analogies are used merely as explanatory aids, not as vehicles for an argument.)

Perhaps the most famous argument from analogy is the the Argument from Design for the existence of God/gods.  There are many versions of this argument, but to give us a template, here’s one:

P1.  The mechanics and inner workings of a watch are so mechanically complicated that they must have been designed by an intelligent being.  

P2.   Watches have a purpose so they must have been designed by an intelligent being.
C1.  As with a watch, life (or a particular organ or organism) is complex and has a purpose therefore, this necessitates that they had an intelligent designer.
HMC.  Therefore, intelligent God/gods exist.

Lets look at the underlying formal structure of an argument from analogy and show how to evaluate an argument from analogy within the context of this famous example. 

The formal structure of an argument from analogy looks like this:

P1.  Object 1 (or Set of Objects 1) has properties p, q, r…z.
P2.  Object 2 (or Set of Objects 2) has properties p, q, r…
HP*:  Properties p, q, r… are relevant to an object having property z
C.   Since Object 1 and Object 2 share properties p, q, and r and Object 1 has property z, then Object 2 must also have property z. 

We can more explicitly formalize the argument from design to see how the argument from analogy works.

P1:  Complicated things such as a watch have the property of having being designed by something intelligent.
P2:  Complicated things (e.g.,  a watch, a computer)  have the property of “purposefulness” and therefore have the additional property of having being designed by an intelligent designer. 
P3:  Life or individual organs or organisms have the properties of complexity and have purpose.
HP*:  The properties of complexity and purposefulness are relevant to an object having the property of having a designer. 
C1:  Therefore, life also has the property of being designed by something intelligent,
MC:  That intelligent thing must be God/gods, therefore God/gods exist. 

Evaluating Arguments from Analogy
When evaluating arguments from analogy, most of our attention will be on the hidden premise, that having properties p, q, r are relevant to having property z.  To see how this works lets turn to the argument from design:  The most famous refutation of this argument comes from Hume in the 18th Century.  Hume gave 6 main criticism of the argument most of which are in some way related to evaluating the hidden premise.  We’ll look at a few of them. 

We should now ask whether the property of complexity is necessarily relevant to also having the property of having an intelligent designer.  One way to approach this is to look for counter-examples;  that is, examples of things that are complex but (to our best knowledge) don’t have a creator.   Are snow-flakes intelligently designed? (Is someone up in the sky furiously making them every time it snows?)  What about complex cloud patterns?  What about those swirls in your coffee?  It seems, we can have complexity without a conscious intelligent designer.

The question of purposefulness is a separate one.  I will simply note that it will take substantial argument to show that each life was designed for some sort of cosmic purpose.  

Also, we might consider what the implications of accepting HP are.  If it is indeed true (contrary to what our counter-examples show) that anything that is complex and that has a purpose also has an intelligent creator, then we must also apply this principle to whatever intelligently created life, and then again to whatever created that life, and again to whatever created that life…(you get the point!)

At this point you’ll have to make some sort of special pleading argument to escape the infinite regress… 
Dawkins notes that in the case of the argument from design, another major flaw is that there is a disanalogy between inanimate objects which are unable to pass on complexity and living organisms which are able to reproduce and pass on complexity (and possibly become more complex over time).  Disanalogies arise when we show that the properties under consideration (complexity and purposefulness) aren’t necessarily relevant to having some other property (intelligent designer). 

However, before we get too side-tracked, in a nutshell, the main counter to an argument from analogy hinges on showing that having one set of  properties (p, q, r, z) doesn’t mean that every object with properties p, q, and r will also necessarily have property z. 

Lets look at one more example of an argument from analogy (intentionally bad–do not try this at home!) 
P1.  Water is clear, liquid, and quenches my thirst.
P2.  Gasoline is also, clear and liquid. 
HP.  The properties clearness and liquidity are relevant to an object having the property of “thirst quenchability.”
C.  Therefore, drinking gasoline will quench my thirst.  

If you’ve been paying attention you might be able to figure out what’s gone wrong… The problem is with the hidden premise.  There is a disanalogy between water and gasoline because clearness and liquidity are not necessarily relevant to something having the property of being able to quench thirst.  

In the policial sphere we often see arguments from analogy with concern to gun policy.  On the anti-gun control side we see analogies with policy in Switzerland (which has lax restrictions on what types of guns can be owned).  On the pro-gun control side we often hear analogies with policy in Australia (which banned assault weapons).  The rebuttals to both arguments from analogy often involve claims to the effect that there are cultural elements that aren’t relevantly similar between the US and the other country.  

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