Slip Sliding Away

If you ever find yourself in an intellectual discussion, you might hear (or yourself use) the term “slippery slope argument.” The general logic behind a “slippery slope” argument is that if we allow X, then Y would be the inevitable consequence. Since Y is obviously bad, then we shouldn’t allow X. The main flaws of this logic would be irrationally assigning an extreme value to Y or by not demonstrating how X -> Y. Opponents of “slippery slopes” rarely argue the merits or demerits of the argument but instead chose to redefine the logic as it suits them. Since the reformulation is usually flawed, opponents may then use the derisive “slippery slope” label to easily discount opposing positions.
Some site maintenance pointed me to Zachary Sholem Berger’s response to my review of Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s book. Berger’s first contention is that my position “smacks of the slippery slope argument used against same-sex marriage.”

    If gays can marry, why not polygamy? or incest? or bestiality? The idea, I suppose, is that homosexuality is basically the same thing as everything else outside the bounds of traditional understanding, and homosexuality is traditionally condemned for the same reason as these other activities. Neither of these is true. The same can be said of ones: homosexuality is different from adultery and murder, I should think, in important ways – namely that homosexuality is not, a priori, immoral, while adultery breaches a relationship and murder takes life.

Here, Berger imposes the issue of morality on my legal argument. His equation compares same-sex marriage with murder on moral grounds. Since there is a moral distinction between them, the laws should obviously be different. However, my critique of R. Greenberg was not based on morality, but on halakhic or legal reasoning. The difference is that laws are not abstract, but they are the rules for normative behavior to which all society must (or at least should) adhere. Jurists from the Talmud through the American Supreme Court have concerned themselves with interpreting law not only for the immediate case at hand, but also the ramifications for future cases.
In the example of oness, R. Greenberg argued that since homosexuals are born with the desire, then we should treat them in the legal category of being exempt if they commit a biblical prohibition. However, if the mere innate desire is sufficient to exempt one type of sin, then the logical consequence would be to apply that logic to other desires as well. Once all desires are outside of one’s control, then all transgressions may be dismissed. This is not an issue of what is moral or immoral, but of the ramifications of assigning legal categories.
Similarly, the secular debate of homosexual marriage may be phrased in legal terms as well. Does the government have a legal right to legislate the private sexual actions of consenting individuals? If the government does, then technically, it could have the power to outlaw homosexual unions. If it does not, then by what legal right does it have to prohibit other sexual acts, such as statutory rape based on an arbitrarily decided age of consent? True, many are motivated by moral concerns, but the legal issues must still be addressed.
The other general problem I see with the immediate rejection of slippery slope arguments is the intrinsic inconsistency. Most logical arguments I have seen follow the logic of IF X THEN Y, including those positions taken by those who oppose the slippery slope arguments. For example, Berger concludes, “As a liberal Jew, however, I do sometimes feel like a passenger on a cruise ship, who asks himself, ‘How much longer do we have to be swinging right on this thing?'” To which I counter, what is wrong with “swinging right” on this or any issue? Furthermore, why shouldn’t we be able to discriminate against whomever we chose? If your answer would follow the logic of IF we did that THEN something would happen, you’ve just set up a slippery slope argument.
This is not to say that all slippery slope arguments are valid – some are clearly far fetched. However, each one must be taken at its merits and debated as it is formulated, and not as one decides to interpret them. I find it ironic that “slippery slope” arguments are often rejected because of their misleading logic, and so they are dismissed automatically based on equally misleading logic.
Berger’s other issue deals more with the question of halakhic authority, one which I cannot detail yet at this point. However, I think it’s time for me to just write a general summary of how Jewish Law works, or at least the concepts and rationale for why I believe what I believe.

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  1. elf
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