Answering David Benatars ‘Slippery Slope’ defence

Dr David Benatar of the University of Cape Town Philosophy Department has stated this incremental strategy up front. “The Netherlands now also allows non-voluntary euthanasia – euthanasia of those who lack the competence to decide whether their lives are worth continuing. Opponents of legalization take this to be evidence of a slippery slope. However, it is a slippery slope12 only if what is now permitted should not be permitted. Yet many proponents of legalization think that it is entirely appropriate that Dutch law has liberalized in the way it has. To understand this point more clearly, imagine a defender of Apartheid in the 1960s employing a slippery slope argument against eliminating some item of so-called ‘petty’ Apartheid, such as separate entrances to the post office. He might argue that if we permit people of different races to use the same entrance to the post office this will lead, by a series of steps, to complete racial integration. Opponents of Apartheid could agree that some initial liberalizing step would indeed make it more likely that ‘white’ racists will adapt and realize that some next step is not so bad and then, eventually, lead to the complete dismantling of Apartheid. Indeed, many advances – in the abolition of slavery, the improved status of women, the protection of animals – have involved gradual changes. The ultimate goal cannot be achieved all at once and thus one makes what progress one can in the hope that further progress will follow.

In other words, Benatar in attempting to rebut the ‘slippery slope’ argument defends it by saying it is actually a good thing. The core problem is that Benatar’s ethics are relative. He defends what is happening in the Netherlands, plus maybe even more relaxation, but denies this could lead to the level of abuses as in Nazi Germany. He cannot draw a line anywhere to say when and where absolute ethics would be violated by euthanasia and so is committed to surrender on the installment plan. This is exactly what happened in Germany under the Nazis, when an array of liberal academics with no absolute ethical standard put up no resistance to the Nazis and capitulated incrementally. As with today, there was perpetual denial among those who knew of the early stages of the Nazi euthanasia programme and genocide that the scale was going to get worse. For example, when a Jewish old age home was emptied to a ‘labour camp’, euthanasia was suspected, but this suspicion did not lead to the view all would be exterminated. The Nazi’s relied on the cooperation and help of vast numbers of ‘Jewish council’s governing the Jewish communities in different areas to organise them. They became progressively aware of the Nazi euthanasia programme, but rationalised that through such compromise of cooperation they would save the majority. This incremental denialism and capitulation enabled the Nazis to deceive and manipulate millions of Jews, and otherwise respectable law-abiding local policeman and government officials in occupied countries into cooperating with their transportation to the East without revolt. Benatar’s father Solly Benatar, formerly lecturer in medical ethics at University of Cape Town, influenced a generation of doctors in favour of accepting abortion on demand and the son is attempting to do the same with euthanasia.

The point is we must draw an absolute line against the killing of innocent people (regardless of age or consent) as does the Hippocratic medicine, except in restrained self-defence for example against criminal attack or in war. The alternative of relative ethic of human life will just wander further down the slippery slope.

Philip Rosenthal