Monday, June 17, 2013

When a Slippery Slope Isn't a Fallacy

I have discussed the Slippery Slope fallacy several times already on this blog, but today I want to think a bit more deeply about when something is and is not a Slippery Slope. This is an issue that arises with many of the informal fallacies because occasionally one will make an argument that superficially appears to commit a fallacy, but on closer inspection turns out to be a legitimate argument. As a case in point, we can look at a recent blog post by Marc Lynch concerning President Obama's decision to increase US military aid tot he Syrian rebels. Lynch's post is provocatively titled, "Sliding Down the Syrian Slope."

Lynch's basic thesis is that the US decision to increase military aid to the Syrian rebels will be ineffective, and will just open the door to a larger and more robust US intervention in the region.
I don't think anyone in the administration really has any great confidence that arming the rebels will end Syria's civil war or work in any other meaningful way, though many likely feel that it's worth trying something different after so many months of horrors and want to believe that this will work. Obviously, I am deeply skeptical. I hope I'm wrong, and that against the odds the new policy can make a difference, and help to resolve the Syrian catastrophe. But more likely it just drags the U.S. further down the road to another disastrous war -- one which has just become harder to prevent.
On its face, this looks like a clear example of a Slippery Slope where action A (increasing military aid) will lead inexorably to action B (US invasion of Syria), but on closer inspection, this is not so clear. The major error in a Slippery Slope fallacy is that one merely asserts that A will lead inexorably toward B without any explanation of the intermediate steps. This is not something that Lynch does in that he does detail what he takes the intermediate steps to be:
The real problem with Obama's announcement is that it shatters one of the primary psychological and political footholds in the grim effort to prevent the slide down the slippery slope to war. He may have chosen the arming option in order to block pressure for other, more direct moves, like a no-fly zone or an air campaign. But instead, as the immediate push for "robust intervention" makes obvious, the decision will only embolden the relentless campaign for more and deeper U.S. involvement in the war. The Syrian opposition's spokesmen and advocates barely paused to say thank you before immediately beginning to push for more and heavier weapons, no-fly zones, air campaigns, and so on. The arming of the rebels may buy a few months, but when it fails to produce either victory or a breakthrough at the negotiating table the pressure to do more will build. Capitulating to the pressure this time will make it that much harder to resist in a few months when the push builds to escalate.
By outlining what he takes the intermediate steps to be, and by providing a provisional conclusion of what he sees as the likely outcome of the administration's actions, Lynch avoids committing the Slippery Slope fallacy although he uses language very reminiscent of it. The major takeaway here is that just because someone claims that A will automatically lead to B does not mean that the person is automatically committing a Slippery Slope fallacy. As critical thinkers, we need to dig more deeply and look at the actual argument we are presented with before drawing conclusions about whether or not fallacies have been committed.

h/t to Digby

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