116 - On Slippery Slopes - Moral Letters for Modern Times
Some people assert the slippery slope argument is silly, because no trend exists in isolation. For all the forces presently gathered and pushing in one direction, other forces will come into play and provide natural causes for things to slow, or to shift course, or even to cease. Now, I am the first one to applaud when I hear people say, “Do not look at this issue by itself, but consider the larger context.”
The biggest hurdle to effective problem-solving lies in focusing too narrowly on the problem we want to solve. By omitting the context, we forget that actions create reactions, and that intended consequences are far more difficult to achieve than unintended consequences are to arise. Most of all we forget that good intentions are all but irrelevant to actual outcomes. You may have had a noble goal in mind, but if you have designed a system that creates incentives that drive different outcomes you are making things worse not better.
Those who say we should not fear the slippery slope are usually trying to do one of two things: undermine opposition to a position they would like to see promoted; or convince themselves that their own little indulgences are acceptable. I’ll leave for another day the discussion of this topic as applied to politics and law, interesting though it is. Right now, Deuteros, I want to address your question of whether we must be so strict in denying ourselves pleasures and so rigorous in casting out negative emotions. In other words, are we as people standing on slippery slopes, or do we have ourselves under control?
The highest state of mind, well-ordered and applying reason to each situation, will place the proper value on emotions and guide our judgment and actions. There is no reason at all not to take pleasure in the things that are necessary for life. One of the goals of our practice is to learn to live a good life, and surely enjoying life is part of that practice. Similarly, there is no doubt that emotions are part of what it means to be human. To suggest otherwise is to place unreasonable expectations on any person; we are not robots!
No indeed, but just as we are no mere machines, so have few of us achieved that state of having perfect wisdom in all things. We are tempted and we are easily led astray. What begins as a simple indulgence can grow into the greatest of monsters, devouring far in excess of reasoned appetite. “Yes, that happens,” you say, “but must it happen every time with every person? Can’t I be trusted to safely manage the smallest of my daily affairs?”
Do you think I exaggerate the dangers once again, Deuteros? Consider for a moment how many ways humans can become addicted. It is easy enough to see that most vices start as harmless pleasures no one could argue against in isolation. For one group, it is an occasional drink, a cigarette, or watching a few YouTube videos. Another group might be tempted by a spot of online shopping, giving in to a twinge of jealousy, or giving vent to a bout of anger. Yet another puts a few dollars on fantasy football, takes a flutter at the track, or wants to bet whether the ball will land on red this time. For each of them you can say “No harm done, and anyway, those are not my vices. I like a piece of chocolate, placing my bets not in Vegas but on stocks, and leasing a new car every so often. I can afford it and have handled myself without a problem so far. So really, what is the harm?”
Here is how that sounds to me, Deuteros. No different than the person who says “I enjoy a glass of wine or a beer in the evening every now and then. What harm of it?” And they would be right, in most cases, just as you are right. But even when this person’s periodic drink becomes a daily drink, you will find them saying “I am in control. I can stop anytime I want. I drink because I want to, not because I have to.” We all know where such self-talk has led too many people.
Can you tell me now which of your indulgences let grown into vices will be your undoing, or will you tell me that you are safe from all temptation? If so, you must also explain to me how it is that the rolls of the Anonymous organizations number so many millions. I am speaking of Alcoholics Anonymous, Gambling Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and the like. A staggering number of both substances and behaviors generate addictive behavior. From alcohol, opioids, and nicotine, to gambling, gaming, and shopping. You will be thinking but perhaps hesitant to point out that working and exercise addition afflict some as well, and you would be right. And this just scratches the surface.
You know I like to look beneath the surface, so let’s do so together. Humans by their nature are designed to seek out pleasurable experiences – food, sex, relaxation – because these things help ensure we survive and procreate. We can indulge pleasures more safely in times of scarcity because there is little danger then of their becoming vices. But when we can get what we want whenever we want, the danger of overindulgence becomes great.
Things that are good in moderation do not remain so in excess. But there is no reliable guide to tell us when enough becomes too much. When it is within our power to self-dose we should be most mistrustful of our ability to find the limit, because it is blurred by the pleasure of the moment. And once in the grip of an indulgence turned to vice, it is far harder to extricate ourselves from its clutches. The safest course is to never start down the road of idle pleasures.
If I cannot convince you it is safer to forego pleasures altogether, at a minimum you must set yourself guidelines in advance. For each pleasure you give yourself indulgence to pursue, do not leave your judgment to the time when you are under their influence. When you are of sound mind, decide your limit in all things, and decide to listen to your mind. Try this method first in small things to see if you can trust yourself. In this way, you may build up habits of self-preservation that keep you from falling all the way down the slope.