Slippery Slope image from The Guardian
The “slippery slope” is often used in the rhetoric of ethical discourse. It follows a basic pattern. If A is allowed, it must follow that B will or should be followed for the same reason. An example is the argument against euthanasia. If we allow a terminally ill person to end their life prematurely because it is only speeding up the inevitable, and it is a compassionate act owing to pain or quality of life, then we should allow the same end for someone who is not yet terminal, as their pain or quality of life is of equal value.
Let me first say, I am not advocating euthanasia. I am in the sanctity of life camp on this one, but as a philosophical and ethical model it is an interesting starting point. Let’s look at some scenarios.
Person A has a severe terminal ailment in which they will become totally paralyzed and fail to even be able to swallow. They will die of this, and should we spare them the pain and agony of such a death? If so, should Person B who was an active sporty individual who has suffered a broken neck be allowed to end their life? They are not going to die from their injury, but they are now dependent on others for all of their basic needs, including post toilet wiping, and feedings. It can be argued such is no quality of life. Should this be allowed as an act of compassion? If so, what about Person C who has a similar but not as severe injury. They can feed themselves, and have limited mobility via a wheelchair. But they do not enjoy the level of freedom they had before their injury. Do they rate the “compassionate” end? I have seen the slippery slope taken all the way in this vein to Person F who is “suffering” a “bad hair day.” The question is, do each of these necessarily follow from its predecessor?
I advise my students to check the validity of the slope argument by reversing it to a Slippery Mountain. Does your end point necessarily lead to the next step?
So much for hypothetical arguments. What about day to day morality?
It is interesting that the 10th Commandment (Exodus 20:17) in many ways is the most harsh of the set. It is not based on action, but on thought. But it is indeed clever to have this mechanism in the commands. After-all, if you don’t covet your neighbour’s wife you will not be tempted to commit aultrery. If you are not jealous of his/her reputation, you will not slander them. If you don’t desire their property you wont steal it. And if you have no desire for his things, reputation, or relationships – why bother murdering him?
Jesus uses this same approach in Matthew 5:27-28. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Here again there is the challenge to avoid a thought. Okay, in this case it is linked to the action of looking – but it is specific in the intent behind the “look.” It does not say don’t gaze upon a woman (or man), but rather don’t do so “lustfully.” If you are not entertaining impure thoughts, the actions will not follow. Here we have our slippery mountain scenario. I Timothy 5 aids us in this in verses 1b and 2, “Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” It is all in the approach and attitude. If the contact is pure, the actions that follow will be as well.
There are real slippery slopes out there. We need to approach them in a spirit of purity, we need to not create situations in which one action (or thought) leads to more negative consequences. It is so in keeping with God’s care of us, that He has given us the models of Exodus 20 and Matthew 5.