Slippery slope arguments and Rick Santorum

So I’m always on my students’ cases about slippery slope arguments in their theory essays as these arguments usually involve a logical fallacy easily refuted. Rick Santorum’s debate about marriage nicely illustrates the problem:

“Reason says that if you think it’s okay for two, then you have to differentiate with me as to why it’s not okay for three.” **

Reason says no such thing. It’s hard to tell if Santorum believes he is engaging in reductio ad absurdum, or whether this just sounded good to him.

The dimension being argued in this slippery slope argument is the number of people. So if two people are all right, but not three, we still haven’t addressed the issue of what equipment the two people have/what roles the two people have or why he’s worried about either issue, or why the rest of us should care why he’s worried. And, according to Rick’s reasoning, a marriage of two people is better than a marriage of three people (or more!), so that a marriage of one person must be more valid than a marriage of two people. Not the outcome he would favor, probably: i.e., the slope that started us sliding was recognizing marriage in the first place: if we legally recognize a man and a woman in a relationship favored by tax, inheritance, and family laws, then other types of couples will want that arrangement, as well.

He’d be better off simply standing by the communitarian argument based on tradition: “a marriage has always been between one man and one woman in this country, that’s what it should remain because tradition matters to community cohesion and identity.”

**BTW, I could care less if three people want to get married, so his analogy to polygamy doesn’t work, either. Polygamy has a long status in the history of mankind, and it’s still practiced where tradition and economics allow. Marriage in the US, legally, is mostly a property contract; the things that give marriage social meaning are much more complex. I’ve yet to see any research showing that kids in two-parent families do better than kids in four-parent families, or whatever. I’m not saying that research doesn’t exist; I’ve just not yet seen anybody produce it.

4 thoughts on “Slippery slope arguments and Rick Santorum

  1. I’ve yet to see any research showing that kids in two-parent families do better than kids in four-parent families, or whatever. I’m not saying that research doesn’t exist; I’ve just not yet seen anybody produce it.

    In large part that’s because the illegality and broad social disapproval of polygamy means that the men who engage in it tend to be rather unsavory sorts. “When [x] is outlawed, only outlaws will do [x]” very much applies.

  2. I think you’re right, but you’d think there would be natural experiments in places where polygamy is not illegal where you could hold culture constant while parent number varies, in places throughout Africa and Asia.

  3. The problem with using anthropological research data (of the sort you suggest) is that the results would not necessarily be generalizable to the contemporary U.S. It is quite possible that there is research somewhere showing that children in polygynous households (or other kinds of polygamous arrangements–it’s just that polygyny is the most common sort as I understand it) are healthy and successful; but that only shows that they are healthy and successful in the context of Mali or wherever. It would not necessarily follow that they would have similarly positive outcomes in the U.S. I don’t intend this to mean that I think they wouldn’t; only that the variables involved are pretty complex and attempts at generalization necessarily difficult.

  4. And I think we all know what happens with difficult academic questions in the hands of pols…

    Incidentally, I recognize that the issue of polygamy is tangential to your main post, which I totally dug. I am considering starting a foundation for unitary marriage.

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