In the six years since I started taking coursework, TAing, teaching, and eventually working in the field of bioethics, there has been one constant: the slippery slope fallacy will set me off ranting every time. In fact, as a TA and a teacher, it is one of the first things that I discuss in a classroom: why I will not abide slippery slope arguments, and just how sloppy that thinking can be.
So imagine my surprise to see a presentation of the slippery slope argument that not only was not sloppily presented, but was in fact one of the better arguments for it – and in a horror movie no less.
Yes, I saw Splice last weekend, and I was quite taken with the movie as a whole. As most reviews of the actual plot will tell you, the movie went strangely sideways in it’s last 20 minutes, and came to a somewhat more typical horror moving conclusion than the majority of the movie indicated (although in it’s defense, the final scene was quite deliciously back to the sort of psychological/thoughtful horror that most of the movie was).
What is the plot of Splice? Quite simply, that two rockstar molecular geneticists (I know, I know) decided to take their research on splicing critters together to the next level, and they created a human hybrid, a chimera of assorted animals. The result is Dren, a creature that starts off working on pushing every button in neotany-is-cute land before maturing into a startlingly beautiful, exotic adult. Roger Ebert was as taken with the movie as I was, and I recommend his review for a more thorough movie analysis. What I want to discuss here is why, ultimately, this movie presented an almost believable defense of the slippery slope argument.
The main male character, Clive (named in homage of Colin Clive and played with an intensely dark brilliance by Adrien Brody), disagrees with partner (Sarah Polley) Elsa’s desire to forge ahead with their gene splicing experiments to create a human hybrid. He argues that it’s wrong, it’s unethical, and it’s against the law so they could get into a lot of trouble. This is about all the actual dialog of the movie adds to the direct debate of human hybrids – there’s no actual discussion of why it is unethical, only Elsa’s clear ambition to do first what both characters agree will eventually happen somewhere by someone. Elsa supports her decision to create the hybrid by arguing that it could help create a multitude of cures for diseases (via some sort of protein marker, another hand-waved area of the movie), and that she and Clive should do this to do good. Enter Dren.
So far, so good – and pretty standard. It’s later in the movie where the slippery slope comes into play. Clive does something that won’t be specified here due to it’s somewhat spoilery nature, and he and Elsa get into a fight. Utlimately, he tells her that his unethical and immoral behaviour is a direct result of their creating Dren: by creating Dren, they rewrote and removed the rules that they used to govern themselves and their lives, and a world without rules was a crazy and immoral place. (I am, of course, paraphrasing in an effort to at least slightly obscure the plot.)
Now, this is interesting – not the idea that doing one small thing, like creating animal hybrids, will create some big travesty through a slippery slope that you keep sliding down, thinking that “just one more thing” won’t be so bad (after all, the basic premise of the slippery slope argument is that making change A will cause disaster X because it will be easier to take incremental steps to get to disaster X, as we become inured to each change or step). Instead, Clive argues that removing the boundaries that are created by the rules we as civil creatures agree to follow, there is nothing with which to judge right and wrong. In a way, the very idea of the slippery slope is reframed into something that I suspect would be more at home in the world of a virtue ethicist than mine. Can we judge what is right and what is wrong when we blur or erase the boundaries that we set up? How do you tell one or the other when there is no sign post to measure with?
Clive and Elsa step beyond the measuring post that their particular scientific community sets up as a moral guideline and as a way to evaluate and judge behaviour. Once they step beyond this line, they have nothing with which to establish their morals against – they’ve already gone beyond.
Is this the most convincing argument in the world? As briefly and tantalizingly presented as it was in Splice, no. While we might not have visible signposts once we step beyond the last line that should not be crossed (how many more ways can I mix this metaphor?), we still do have memory of what the previous signposts were and what they allowed and banned and why. However, I can just as easily see a movie more dedicated to exploring these issues and how we both establish and maintain our moral identity, offering a convincing argument towards this idea of destroying all the rules and having nothing left to live by. I’d like to see that movie, if only because I think it would create a lot of deep food for thought.