Rick Santorum Should Ditch the “Slippery-Slope” Metaphor

Rick Santorum

Would somebody please explain to Rick Santorum why he was booed at a recent town hall appearance in Concord, New Hampshire?

When a young lady in the audience asked him about “two men who want to marry the person that they love,” he cut her off, saying, “What about three men?” Then he trotted out his boilerplate “slippery slope” argument:

It’s important that if we’re going to have a discussion based on rational thought, that we employ reason. Reason says that if you think it’s OK for two, you have to differentiate with me why it’s not OK for three. Let’s just have a discussion about what that means. If she reflects the values that marriage can be for anybody or any group of people, as many as is necessary, any two people or any three or four, marriage really means whatever you want it to mean. [emphasis mine]

Here’s my point of view. And we’re done talking about this issue. We’re going to move on to something else.

Santorum appears not to understand the meaning of “discussion,” the purpose of town halls, or the requirements of rational thought. After rudely interrupting this audience member and insulting her intelligence, he offers an argument that is fundamentally flawed, then declares the “discussion” will be closed after he has stated his point of view. What could be more irking to an audience?

His argument is flawed for two reasons.

(1) If two, then why not three?

First, consider this part of his statement: “Reason says that if you think it’s OK for two, you have to differentiate with me why it’s not OK for three.”

This astonishing and utterly unreasonable claim is not just a momentary lapse on Santorum’s part, because he has said it before—many times. Taken at face value, it means that any monogamous marriage is the first step on the slippery slope to polygamy. And that begs the question, “Why not also ban opposite-sex marriage in that case?”

How are we to explain this bizarre statement? I suspect, though I cannot possibly confirm, that a word or phrase is missing after the adjective “two.” Santorum has mentally edited out a phrase from that position, and that phrase is something like “wicked and depraved persons,” which he has used before. He thinks but cannot say, “…if it’s OK for two wicked and depraved persons to marry, then why not three?” Or maybe the thought-phrase was “two of those people,” or “two perverts.” Something said in the company of family and close friends cannot be uttered when the public is listening.

(2) The slippery slope

The second flaw in Santorum’s response is his very choice of the slippery-slope argument, which logicians, jurists, and scientists universally regard as a logical fallacy.

The fallacy of the slippery slope argument is in supposing that a single step in a particular direction will inevitably lead to taking all the remaining steps. This may be true in the case of jumping off a rooftop, but it is not true in other life situations where choices are still available after the initial step has been taken.

Consider the following argument: “If we lower the drinking age from 21 to 18, there will only be further demands to lower it to 16, and then to 14. Before we know it, our newborns will be drinking wine instead of milk.”

In this example, the regression from twenty-one to zero is linear, and common sense tells us the skids are not greased and that babies will not soon be drinking wine. But what of Santorum’s “regression” from same-sex marriage to polygamy? It is neither more nor less linear than the “regression” from opposite-sex marriage to polygamy. Both entail increments of one or more, and so again we have equivalence of the two.

Also, if the steps are in the proper order and are in fact slippery, then couldn’t we conclude that opposite-sex marriage is the first step on the slippery stairway? Why choose the second step and not the first as the one to avoid?

And what if we were to discover that Santorum’s first two “steps” are in the wrong order and that polygamous relationships were the norm before monogamous ones in most societies? This was in fact the pattern in nearly all the cultures of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Polygyny was clearly approved in the Torah (Exodus 21:10, Deuteronomy 17:17) and was practiced among Jews as late as the second century CE. Only within the last hundred years or so has monogamy been in the ascendancy.

If Santorum is to characterize the historical shift away from polygamy as a “progression” and not a “regression,” then where is he to place our newest entrant in the marriage game, i.e., same-sex marriage?  Is it also a progression, or is it a regression following a progression?

The point of all these questions is to show that slippery-slope analogies inevitably lead to muddled thinking of the kind Santorum displayed in Concord. His audience very likely sensed his confusion and resented his refusal to own up to it.

There is a viable alternative to slippery-slope argumentation, and it lies in evaluating every form of behavior on its own merits. We deserve to hear Rick Santorum’s reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex American couples who do not share his particular religious views. So far, he has advanced his badly broken line of reasoning because his objection to same-sex marriage must, for political reasons, appear to be grounded in logic, not church doctrine. Let’s hope that a dogged debate moderator somewhere down the line will smoke him out on this.

And we would appreciate his leaving polygamy, “man-on-dog” sex, and other forms of diversion out of the discussion. They do not belong there.

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