Slippery slopes

Implanting tracking devices provides a very frightening vision for the future.
… This would be used initially for sex offenders, but we would soon find
that other marginalised groups, such as asylum seekers, would find they were
forced to have implants.
John Wadham, director of Liberty. (Source: Observer, 17/11/02)

The idea of implanting tracking devices under the skins of criminals is, with
good reason, a controversial one. No other punishment in Britain involves altering
a person’s body. Some may even see it as requiring a form of mutilation, in
the strict sense of the word, and that therefore it is an example of the kind
of "cruel and unusual punishment" that infringes upon a person’s basic
human rights. These rights, some argue, are also breached merely by the fact
that an offender with an implant will have his or her movements tracked 24/7.

These arguments may or may not be compelling and they need to be weighed against
the arguments in favour of the implants. One of these is that the implants may
actually give the offender more freedom, since the alternative is to be kept
under lock and key. Perhaps it’s better to be out of prison and under surveillance
than in prison.

There are clearly serious issues and debates surrounding the proposed tagging.
But the concerns raised by the director of the civil liberties campaign group
Liberty do not address them. Instead of tackling the key questions head-on,
he invokes the spectre of a slippery slope: if we allow sex offenders to have
implants, then before we know it, implants will be everywhere.

The problem with slippery slope arguments is that they make the location of
what is contentious unclear. In this case, we need to ask: is it problematic
that sex offenders have these implants or is it only a problem if the use of
implants is extended to other groups in society? If it is problematic for sex
offenders to have the implants then we do not get to the root of the problem
by thinking about what other groups of people might be next in line for them.
If it is wrong, it is wrong regardless of whether the technology is extended
or not.

But instead of focussing on the actual wrongness of the action under debate,
slippery slope arguments shift our focus to its unacceptable extensions. In
the implant case, the goal is to make us oppose implants because we don’t want
to see them in asylum seekers, not to make us realise how terrible it is that
sex offenders have them. So they avert our concentration from what is really
at issue and make us look elsewhere.

A slippery slope argument can carry some weight if there is a high probability
that the unacceptable consequence will in fact happen, and is actually unacceptable.
The problem is that in most slippery slope arguments there is no such demonstration.
Wadham’s claim is simply an assertion. There is no particular reason to suppose
that implants will be extended for use with asylum seekers. (It is interesting
that he talks about "other vulnerable groups", thus classifying sex
offenders as a "vulnerable group". In some senses sex offenders are
vulnerable, but not many people would agree, if it were stated directly rather
than obliquely, that they form a vulnerable group comparable to asylum seekers.)
But unless we are given good reason to suppose implants would be extended to
other groups we would not want them to be extended to, the slippery slope doesn’t
work. It is not enough to say, "If you tolerate this, asylum seekers will
be next." One has to show that asylum seekers will in fact be next, or
at the very least that there is a good chance they will be.

Ironically, the famous slippery slope argument just alluded to is arguably
not an example of the genre at all. Republican posters in the Spanish Civil
War showed Nationalist bombings and proclaimed, "If you tolerate this your
children will be next". However, the real force of this poster was only
partially due to its depiction of the possibility of what might happen next.
What the poster did above all was to make us realise the unacceptability of
the nationalist bombings themselves, by making us imagine what it would be like
if our children were the victims. So just because an argument has the apparent
form of a slippery slope argument, that doesn’t necessarily mean it exhibits
all its failings.

When confronted with a slippery slope argument, two questions should be asked.
First, is the practice being objected to in itself objectionable? If it is,
then the foreseen extensions are irrelevant. If implants for sex offenders are
wrong they are wrong, and it is an irrelevant distraction to start talking about
implants in other groups of people. If bombing Spanish towns is wrong, it is
irrelevant that it would also be bad to bomb British ones. If the practice is
not objectionable in itself, we then need to ask, if we start down this road,
is it likely that the practice would be extended to situations where it was
objectionable? Only if it is will the slippery slope argument carry any force.
And even then, that may only provide reasons for creating safeguards to prevent
the unwanted extension. It cannot form a direct objection to the practice itself.

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