Monday, September 22, 2014

Choices IV: The Slippery Slope

I'm writing a series of posts on the ethics of how we make choices. I've tried to argue that not all options are created equal: some choices are better than others and we can be guided in how we make these  choices by a set of ethical imperatives. I suppose that if one disagreed with my ethics (say, my humanism), than a great deal of what I have been saying does not make a great deal of sense. For instance, I tried to argue that inclusion is better than exclusion. If we  can make choices that include more people than otherwise would have been the case -- all other things being equal -- than we should adopt that approach. Likewise, I have tried to argue that arguments for exclusion based on tradition (we have always done things this way), don't actually hold up well and cannot provide a sound ethical basis for, say, excluding someone from a club or team. Tradition can be a guide to action but it cannot serve as an excuse (if there are other options) for harming someone. Finally, I also tried to argue against the "the word is a hard place" type of thinking. We hear this a fair bit, particularly with regard to children. I argued that this basis for decision-making failed because it fulfilled its own prophecy and was grounded in metaphysics (the "world is hard" perspective is grounded in unprovable perspective; not demonstrable fact.)

What is important here is that we are each of us confronted with the opportunity to make decisions most days. "Will I can so-and-so and see if they want to come to the movie with us?" "Should I drop so-and-so a line and see how they are doing?" "Should we see if so-and-so needs help with their homework?" Making these decisions most of the time is pretty easy for us but they all involve an ethics. Every time, for instance, that we believe the worst of someone without checking the facts ("Why is Bob late for work?"), we run the risk of making the wrong decision because our ethics are messed up. We all know that we should check our facts before making a decision ("I'm going to fire that guy because he is late!") because otherwise we could mess up ("Oh, you were in a traffic accident? You were hit by a semi?"). So decisions really are not all that important ("shall I have a cookie or ice cream for desert?"), but my point is that in the normal run of our lives we have the opportunity -- through our decisions -- to make the world better or worse for other people. How should we make those decisions?

The argument  I have been putting forward is that saying "we should do things in a humane way" is not good enough. What I need to show is that other modes of decision-making (hence, what I was discussing above) are not good enough; they have problems because if they did not my perspective would not have much to recommend it. It can be recommended, however, if it can be show to have (a) positive results that other modes of decision making do not have and (b) that other modes of decision making are flawed in such a way as to prescribe their general use (even if they might serve some uses in some  contexts).

To continue this argument, I want to point to another mode of flawed decision making. Periodically, myself and members of my family or friends will discuss some sort of decision. Sometimes, it will involve a financial outlay. You know what I am talking about "if we all throw in some money, we can do X." In these decisions someone will, sooner or later, use what we might call the "slippery slope" argument. If we do X, we will be asked to do Y, and then Z, A, B, C ... where will it end?" In other words, the decision that we will make will need to a never-ending stream of requests to continue to do the same thing (say, donate money to some worthwhile cause -- to donate the cause, I'd suggest, should be worthwhile as a beginning point of consideration!) for others. If I give Bob some money, I'll have to give Mary some, and then Jane and Steve ... and ... and ... and.

There is also an ethical component to this argument. Without coming right out and saying it, this argument implies a decision to help one person and not  another is a bit hypocritical. At the least it would be arbitrary. Thus, one is better of not helping anyone (and helping someone, from what I can tell, is the context within which this type of slippery slope argument generally arises).

Let me quickly address each of these objections because I think they are inter-related.

First, the fact that one cannot help everyone is not a reason to help no one. The two propositions don't, in fact, connect to each other at all. In the first place, one might not be being asked to help everyone. Imagine a scenario where someone says "let us help Bob." The counter -- slippery slope -- argument is "No because then we would have help Mary." The truth of the matter is that we don't know whether we would have the help Mary. Maybe she has solved her own problems. Maybe she does not want our help. Maybe the context is radically different (maybe Bob has fallen on hard times because the plant laid him off. Mary got laid off, too, but she might be filthy rich to begin with and so does not really need help). In other words, the argument that we cannot help Bob because Mary might also want help works with an unproven assumption: that Bob's and Mary's cases are exactly alike. Since that is an assumption, the fact that we would deny help to Bob on the basis of an assumption about Mary's life ... seems a tad odd.  Mary might be getting help from other people! In that case, we would be denying help to Bob on the basis of an unproven assumption that turns out to be wrong.

The other issue that is connected to this point but not inherently logically connected to it is: no one has asked you to help Mary. It might be for the reasons given above, it might be fore some other reason. Or, perhaps, it might be true that Mary needs help as well (I'll get to this point below). But, the issue under consideration is Bob. The issue under consideration, then, is should we allow another issue to detract from making the right decision with regard to Bob. Let me use an example to illustrate my point. Imagine that your house needed plumbing repairs. Would you say "gee, my electrical might also be shot so I guess I won't repair my plumbing." Would that make any sense? Instead of solving one problem about which you know, you elect to ignore that problem because you cannot address another issue that might not even be a problem?

What is also pertinent here is that the argument against helping Bob is not based on the merits of Bob's situation -- as with my plumbing analogy.  In fact, the "we cannot help Bob because we might also have to help Mary" argument avoids any engagement with the merits of Bob's case. And, it is at this point that I start to become a bit suspicious of those who are arguing against helping Bob. After all, there many ethically sound reasons not to help Bob. By trying to help him we might, for instance, create a bigger mess. The help we are proposing might not be the help he needs. His problems are not all that grave and it might help his maturity to solve them for himself. And, we could go on. In other words, the slippery slope argument is notable for its avoidance of the issues at hand. It distracts from those issues ("what about Mary') while avoiding any consideration of the merits of Bob's case. Any time someone does not engage a specific case ... I start to wonder about their commitment to that case in the first place.

Second, let's turn to the implied hypocrisy argument because this one, in my view, is stronger. Double standards are generally things we seek to avoid and for good reason. Ultimately, I think, I'd argue that we can be far too concerned with double standards because I am not at all convinced that there is that much symmetry in the world, but that is an argument for another day. Let us accept, for the sake of argument, that some level of consistency is good thing in our interaction with others. As an instructor, for instance, I tend go give my students the same types of assignments because it would be arbitrary for me to pick some students (in the same class) and give them more or less work than others for the same grade. I think, therefore, that the implied hypocrisy argument is one that merits consideration.

Yet, I also think it tends to fail because it is amenable to a weird logic. It assume that because you cannot do everything, you should do nothing. Now ... pause and think about that. Do you use that logic in any other realm of your life? I can't repair both my roof and my plumbing so I repair neither? That is a recipe for your house to fall down and in short order. Imagine you have two cars. Both need repairs so you repair neither? Would that make any sense? I am hungry but I can't eat  both donuts and a salad so I'll eat neither?

What is even more problematic about this argument from an ethical perspective is that it provides a recipe for inaction. If we cannot help Bob because Mary also needs help, we cannot help Mary because Bob also needs help. We could use an economic argument to show the facile nature of this proposition from a practical perspective. Imagine that there is some utility (some good) that comes from helping someone. Just to put a number of it, let us say that good could be measures. We get 100 units of goodness for helping someone. If I help Bob, I get 100 units of goodness. If I help Mary, I  get 100 units of goodness. But if I help no one, I get no units of goodness. Hence, helping no one actually does not make mathematical sense either. In economic terms, inaction reduces the amount of goodness in the world under the guide of being fair. Instead of having 100 units of goodness, we have none.

Another good point I want to make from an ethical perspective is that old proposition: do unto others. Generally, this proposition is good ethics. That is why, a friend of mine tells me, it exists in virtually all ethical and religious systems in the world. Instead of imagining this question from our perspective, let us try to understand it from Bob's perspective. Bob asks for help. We  turn him down because Mary needs help too. Would you want to be in Bob's shoes? Imagine yourself in that situation. Imagine that you really are in need. You are hungry and have not eaten. Do you want to be told "no I will give you no food because there is someone else who is hungry?"

The final ethical proposition to make is that the slippery slope argument fails because it limits possibilities. It begins from the assumption that we cannot help both Bob and Mary but what if we could? Let us go back to hungry situation. Bob and Mary are both hungry and we have one meal to give them. Should we give it to neither or divide it between them? In other words, the slippery slope argument does not address the problem, it *stops" us from thinking creatively about how to address the problem. In this example, neither Bob nor Mary might have everything that they want but they have something and they are no longer hungry. There are other options (we could pool all our food, each taking a bit less and feeding Bob, Mary, and us well).

So, the upshot is that this argument -- the slippery slope argument -- is worth considering and its worth thinking about but ultimately it fails and so does not refute the humane argument for decision-making that I have been making.
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