The title of this column does not refer to the classic conservative fear that basic expansions of individual liberties must inevitably lead to unanimously understood atrocities. Indeed, I am not worried that legalizing gay marriage will pave the way for polygamy a few years down the line. I do not think that legalizing marijuana will foster an environment in which state legislatures and the federal government condone crystal meth addiction. I do not own a gun, but if I did I would not stay up late at night concerned that more strict background checks for gun ownership would encourage President Obama to show up at my door the next week to demand my personal arsenal. I don’t fret that Duke Student Government’s bill to regulate students’ printing allotments will inspire the representative group to control which classes I am able to take next semester.

Okay, so that last one might be a bit hyperbolic (oh, the irony). Regardless, the point remains that the infamous “slippery slope” argument is the most commonly employed logical fallacy for those who oppose a certain expansion of liberty in lieu of reason. More often than not I find that slippery slope arguments are used by those who oppose some movement but who are not sure precisely why they oppose it. The frequent use of the fallacy is by individuals who either do not see the fault in the logical rationale of the slippery slope or by those who do not fully understand the issue on which they claim to have an opinion.

The slippery slope is a continuum fallacy that assumes one small step for mankind will yield one giant leap for inhumanity. One variant of the argument holds that individual and statewide initiatives will spread across the country and another suggests that federal social movements will become more extreme over time. Marijuana legalization is a good example here. Anti-marijuana advocates love to look at the interesting social experiments taking place in Colorado and Washington and make two claims—first, that a state’s legalization of the drug should not be allowed because it will naturally cross over to other states, and, second, that if it achieves federal approval, more dangerous drugs like heroin will also be legalized.

These types of claims do nothing if not underestimate the public’s ability to make rational decisions about potential issues that affect them. If legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington raises significant revenue while simultaneously not ending life as we know it, then of course majorities in other states might support similar initiatives. If it proves to drastically lower health standards, the national results will be quite different. The trend of the movement is therefore not due to a slippery slope, but instead the result of a more natural process of trial and error. Regardless, the majority of Americans still report skepticism when it comes to marijuana usage. A Gallup poll exploring public sentiment on marijuana released earlier this year shows that fewer individuals view drug abuse as a national crisis since the two-state experiment, but more view it as a “serious” concern locally. Put another way, before people allow their governments to enact new policies with direct effects, they generally attempt to at least make a mental pro-con list. This underscores an intuitive but important point—groundbreaking public policies do not spontaneously occur, but rather they require time, thought and popular support.

When a social issue has earned that time, thought and popular support, the rhetoric behind the slippery slope simply exposes an individual’s ignorance. Take the debate surrounding gay marriage, for instance, which continues despite the support of both the majority of Americans and most of their lawmakers and court justices. I like to think that gay marriage has gained such rapid support simply because it is a rational policy to support—nothing but subtle or pronounced prejudice can keep someone from supporting such a basic right. In the face of reason comes the slippery slope argument—what about polygamists, bestiality or child molestation? I guess in such cases it should be clear enough to suggest a difference between two adult consensual women having a government-endorsed marriage license and three men wanting to get married to their pet rabbit. I would hope that it would be enough to point to the judicial arguments supported by a growing body of evidence that suggests gay couples have no adverse effect on their children. I would assume that conservatives could look up similar studies done on the negative effects of polygamous relationships to see just how the two are not analogous.

Usually, though, I am left aghast with how easily people fall down the slippery slope in debate. Hence the title of the column, which in fact refers to the intellectually destructive habit of falling back onto a rhetorical device to avoid facing the facts about a social trend that might feel disturbing. When all else fails, a fun fact about the fallacy is that it can be incorrectly applied to any governmental action or inaction. Every time I am asked why gay marriage won’t lead to polygamy, I ask in return why using the Bible’s definition of marriage won’t soon lead to governmental executions of citizens working on the Sabbath (see Exodus 35:2). It’s time we view the slippery slope not as a rational argument to be shied away from, but as a hardly-subtle defense mechanism barely worth a legitimate response.

Brendan McCartney is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday.