All Slopes Are Slippery

All slopes are slippery. Not so much for geckos and flies, to be sure. But for men, all slopes are more or less slippery, and dangerous.

I was a professional outdoorsman for 8 years. I had before, and have since, spent many months in all sorts of wilderness. And I can tell you from bitter personal experience that all slopes whatever, regardless of their grade, their height or their constituents, are in the limit mortally dangerous, inasmuch as they all offer to the clumsy, incautious, unskilled, foolish, and inattentive or imprudent – aye, and to the canny fit and experienced man who is the opposite of all these things – a chance to fall all the way to their bottoms. A single misstep can spell fatal disaster.

And every man, no matter how virtuous and skilled in the arts of the wilderness, is prone to a misstep now and then. Missed steps come along with walking, even on smooth and level urban pavements. When you traverse the uneven ground of the wilderness, you are bound to take a misstep at least once or twice in every hour, even when you are not yet bushed (to be bushed is to have grown tired from traversing the bush).

On a level plain, this is generally no big deal (although even on the flats, a fall under a heavy pack is no small thing).

On any sort of slope, however, missteps have a horrible and almost inevitable way of compounding. One misstep leads to another insufficiently planned and careful step, which generates a yet worse; and this continues, to worse and worse effects. Time slows as by such procedures it passes – as our powers of attention dilate and intensify under conditions of emergency – and it becomes possible to observe a compounding disaster carefully as it unfolds, and even to predict what the next of its component missteps will be, and the one after that; so that the fall as a whole takes on an inexorable internal logic like that of a Greek tragedy.

Notice that word, ‘compounding.’ The slippery slope is an analogue of positive feedback circuits, such as that of the savings account that pays compound interest: interest on interest already earned. Inflation and investment returns work the same way.

And so do errors of all sorts compound.

Of such does the logic of cosmic coherence through time consist; by it does cosmic coherence operate, as enacted. This is the reason and ontological foundation of the doctrine of Original Sin..

Compounding generates its effects slowly at first, but then at an inflection point, the slope of the curve turns quickly toward the vertical (some such asymptoses to the vertical are positive, but most are negative). The first misstep might traverse no more than an inch or two of grade, whereas the last in the series traverses 80 feet in the same amount of time.

The slippery slope argument is controversial, not because slopes are not slippery, and not because missteps do not compound. Nobody seriously thinks either of those propositions is veridical, or believes them, or behaves in quotidian life as if they were true. Rather, the argument is controversial because people disagree about whether an act x is a misstep. If so, a fall down a slippery slope looms; if not, not to worry.

The trick then of avoiding catastrophic falls down slippery slopes is to discern and so avoid missteps. And, fortunately, the Gedanken Policy Test can help with that. After all, the Test asks which of two societies otherwise exactly alike is more likely to prosper, one that does x, or one that does not. Is x a misstep, taken in isolation – i.e., for me in this very moment? Apply the Test: what would happen if a whole society did x *a lot*?

That question usually answers itself quite dispositively, upon no more than a moment’s reflection.

OK: if pervasive x tends to social failure, then, duh, x is a misstep. Don’t take it.



In the woods, certain policies soon become obviously prudent. I can remember my first two lessons in traversing the wilderness. My father said to me when I was 5: “Never run in the woods unless you must; never step on a log or a stone when you could instead step on the ground.” Notice that these are both rules about avoiding missteps.

Over the decades since, I have learnt many other such rules. I have passed them on to my children and grandchildren. Such is Tradition.


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