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False Dilemma

(also known as: all-or-nothing fallacy, false dichotomy*, the either-or fallacy, either-or reasoning, fallacy of false choice, fallacy of false alternatives, black-and-white thinking, the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses, bifurcation, excluded middle, no middle ground, polarization)

Description: When only two choices are presented yet more exist, or a spectrum of possible choices exists between two extremes.  False dilemmas are usually characterized by “either this or that” language, but can also be characterized by omissions of choices.  Another variety is the false trilemma, which is when three choices are presented when more exist.

Logical Forms:

Either X or Y is true.

 

Either X, Y, or Z is true.

Example (two choices):

You are either with God or against him.

Explanation: As Obi-Wan Kenobi so eloquently puts it in Star Wars episode III, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!”  There are also those who simply don’t believe there is a God to be either with or against.

Example (omission):

I thought you were a good person, but you weren’t at church today.

Explanation: The assumption here is that bad people don’t go to church.  Of course, good people exist who don’t go to church, and good church-going people could have had a really good reason not to be in church -- like a hangover from the swingers' gathering the night before.

Exception: There may be cases when the number of options really is limited.  For example, if an ice cream man just has chocolate and vanilla left, it would be a waste of time insisting he has mint chocolate chip. 

It is also not a fallacy if other options exist, but you are not offering other options as a possibility.  For example:

Mom: Billy, it’s time for bed.

Billy: Can I stay up and watch a movie?

Mom: You can either go to bed or stay up for another 30 minutes and read.

Billy: That is a false dilemma!

Mom: No, it’s not.  Here, read Bo’s book and you will see why.

Billy: This is freaky, our exact conversation is used as an example in this book!

Tip: Be conscious of how many times you are presented with false dilemmas, and how many times you present yourself with false dilemmas.

Note: Staying true to the definitions, the false dilemma is different from the false dichotomy in that a dilemma implies two equally unattractive options whereas a dichotomy generally comprises two opposites. This is a fine point, however, and is generally ignored in common usage.

References:

Moore, B. N., & Parker, R. (1989). Critical thinking: evaluating claims and arguments in everyday life. Mayfield Pub. Co.



Registered User Comments

Prabhat Poudel
Monday, October 30, 2017 - 02:33:18 PM
What about examples like:

A rock can either be alive or dead.
God can either exist or not exist.
You can either eat the ice cream or not eat the ice cream.

Are these false dilemmas?

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Monday, October 30, 2017 - 03:10:15 PM
All are different.

A rock can either be alive or dead.

There is no full-agreed upon definition of life. For example, some say viruses are living, and some say they are not. So perhaps what constitutes "life" is not a point on a spectrum, but a section of the spectrum.

God can either exist or not exist.

"Existence" is pretty clear legitimate binary. I have yet to come across someone who claimed something can "kinda" exist.

You can either eat the ice cream or not eat the ice cream.

What about one lick of the ice cream? What about taking a bite and spitting it out? If we agree on a binary definition of eat, then this is a legitimate dichotomy.

Overall, the context in which these phrases are uttered matter as well, because meaning is often more important than the words used. All of the phrases you mentioned are reasonable dichotomies. I would never call "fallacy" on any of those.

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Prabhat Poudel
Monday, October 30, 2017 - 03:44:01 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD:

Thanks for responding right away.

The example with the rock is one that was classified as an llicit Observation or false dilemma on another website that I visited to sort my confusion between false dilemmas and the law of excluded middle. The justification being that the terms alive and dead are not contradictories; they are, instead, contraries. Thus, a rock is neither alive nor dead because "dead" assumes a prior state of being alive. I wanted to know what you thought about it.

I'll reword the second example: You can either believe in God or don't believe in him. Would this qualify as a false dilemma? I suppose you could mention agnosticism, but would that by any chance violate the law of excluded middle?

Seems like I'm asking way too many questions and bringing in irrelevant stuff so I will stop here.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Monday, October 30, 2017 - 04:06:20 PM
@Prabhat Poudel: I don't mind the questions at all :)

I think calling a rock "dead" rather than "not alive" is more of issue having to do with definitions, rather than logic and/or reason. If the definition of dead requires something to have been alive, then it is simply a misuse of the term.

The belief in God issue opens a big philosophical can of worms. First, no fallacy here. Very smart people disagree with the idea that you either believe something or don't. I think the confusion arises with the difference between "no belief" and "disbelief." For example, I am holding a coin in one of my hands now. Do you believe that it is in my right hand? Do you not believe that it is in right hand? Think about this "not belief" and what it means. Now, if I showed you that it was in my LEFT hand, and told you it was in my RIGHT hand, you would still technically "not believe," but this means something very different.

When it comes to God, there are people who really have no idea if God exists or not. God is like the coin that might or might not be in the right hand—they have not examined the evidence nor have they given any thought to it, or perhaps, they have find evidence to support both propositions (that he exists and does not exist) and are simply unconvinced either way. Skeptics (like myself) like to say that we suspend belief until we have evidence, but this doesn't mean that default state is disbelief or even non belief—it is, for a lack of a better word, agnosticism.

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Munstrumridcully
Monday, March 06, 2017 - 10:44:31 PM
I have a question: can a moral hypothetical dillema be a false dillema? I ask because I asked a pro life person who said zygotes have as much moral value as child and I asked if he was in a fertility clinic on fire and had a chance to only save some frizen zygotes or a child, what does he believe is the most moral choice. He refused to answer and insisted it was a false dillema. As i understand it, such hypotheticals intentionally limit choices only as a what if, and cannot be false dillemas.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Tuesday, March 07, 2017 - 06:28:21 AM
I agree. Hypotheticals such as that one cannot be false dilemmas. You are not claiming that those are the only possibilities; you are asking what the person would do IF those were the only possibilities.

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Munstrumridcully
Tuesday, March 07, 2017 - 09:45:47 AM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: thank you for your reply, i thought so but could find no resources online dealing with my question :)

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Bill Shaw
Wednesday, March 08, 2017 - 01:37:32 PM
Unrelated to the false dilemma but pertinent to your challenge: while I don't believe a zygote has the same value as a person born there is a simple answer to your challenge. We would all save the child, not because we necessarily believe that they have more intrinsic worth but their value to loved ones is so significant. The child is a part of someones life. Additionally we all instinctively perceive a greater value in a living, breathing person than a fertilized egg, even if we believe there is a sameness to their theoretical value (vs perceived value).

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Eric
Wednesday, October 18, 2017 - 02:38:51 AM
@Bo Bennett, PhD:
Ben Shapiro debates this here:
https://youtu.be/BgxyqX0kf7I

I think he brings the point that the issue isn't the actual choice but that what the choice represents is a false dilemma.

If you choose the child somehow that automatically means that zygotes have less value than a human being outside the womb. But, that because someone does choose the child for whatever reason that does not necessarily lead to the opposite conclusion.

What are your thoughts Dr. Bo?

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Wednesday, October 18, 2017 - 07:01:13 AM
@Eric: Without watching the video, I would say that we need to be clear on what the choice does or does not represent. To me, the choice does represent what has more value to the person making the choice. So if my house is on fire, I am going to get my dog first, then my bird, then my hard drive (I am assuming my wife got out on her own :) ) It is reasonable to conclude from this that I value my dog over my hard drive.

To go back to Munstrumrid's OP, I do think that the scenario he presented could not establish "moral value" but rather is an example of a subjective emotional or practical value. To illustrate, I think most people would agree that the life of a 80-year-old man has equal "moral value" to a 5-year-old boy. But if you can only save one, most would choose the 5-year-old boy because of the emotional or practical value of the boy.

I think this "test" doesn't hurt the pro-life person's position if they choose the boy. Why? Because to them, both the boy and zygotes have equal moral value, but the boy also has additional emotional or practical value. So saving the boy is the rational choice—for everyone.

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Eric
Wednesday, October 18, 2017 - 01:30:09 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD:
The clarity is important. But, I'm not sure about the fallacy involved, if there is one. Because like you said there are two different values involved. And, we know that this question is presented to show that if a person is willing to save the boy, then the eggs have less value so then we are justified in killing them aka abortion. But, just because you save the boy doesn't mean the eggs have less value.

Ben, in the video, uses another example of you standing at the train tracks where it splits into right and left tracks with a switch to change the direction of the tracks. On the right track there are 5 people tied down and on the left there is on person tied down. Who do you save?

The answer/choice doesn't show any less moral value either way, but I think like you said, more practical value saving 5 vs 1 life.

So, there is a dilemma involved with the choice. But it sounds like the issue lies with in the possible interpretations of the answer. If you answer X therefore Y has less value. This sounds like a false dilemma to me.

If I don't go to church then it is automatically assumed I'm a bad person. The choice was whether or not to go to church. The assumption of that choice, from the presenter, because I didn't show up, is that I'm a bad person. How is this not the same as the above?

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Thursday, October 19, 2017 - 06:27:25 AM
@Eric:
If you answer X therefore Y has less value. This sounds like a false dilemma to me.
But that's not a false dilemma. It might be equivocation (using "practical value" but implying "moral value"). It might be a non sequitur (the conclusion does not follow). Sure, if one really tries, they can lay down one implication after another to get to some informal fallacy. But when other fallacies are far more clear, use them. Fallacies are fallacies.

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Eric
Thursday, October 19, 2017 - 05:27:43 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD:

I'm still learning!

Thanks for your time Dr. Bo, I really appreciate it!

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Monday, October 23, 2017 - 05:02:04 PM
@Eric: I found this interesting enough to research it and do a full article/podcast episode on it: https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/bg/Bo/LogicalFallacies/rPbFd4zR/If-You-Could-Only-Save-One--Would-You-Save-a-Child-or-a-Thousand-Embryos

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Elle
Friday, May 26, 2017 - 04:43:29 PM
Billy: That is a false dilemma!
Mom: No, it’s not. Here, read Bo’s book and you will see why.
Billy would not see why it is not a false dilemma, because you do not explain why it is not a false dilemma.

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Bill Shaw
Wednesday, March 08, 2017 - 02:29:53 PM
I don't get the explanation of the church example. Isn't the unstated assumption "good people go to church" not "bad people do not go to church"?
All good people go to church.
You were not in church.
You are not a good person (like I thought you were).
The missing alternatives make sense: Good people may not be in church for good reason. Going to church is not what makes one good, some bad people go to church, etc.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Thursday, March 09, 2017 - 06:45:05 AM
Fictional characters in my examples say stupid things. It makes it easier to demonstrate the fallacies :)

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John Woods
Monday, February 13, 2017 - 07:00:06 PM
IMHO "I thought you were a good person, but you weren’t at church today" is not a false dilemma. You've stated the enthymeme as "bad people don't go to church" but that is more like a generalization. An ethymeme of "There are just two kinds of people, bad people and those who go to church" seems a bit less likely. I'm sceptical of the the suggestion that all false statements of the form "(not X) implies Y" can be considered false dilemmas of "(X xor Y)". I think there's a stronger claim that the enthymeme behind this ("not good = bad") is actually the false dilemma,

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Joe Walker
Saturday, January 21, 2017 - 03:41:11 PM
One more exception needed - "You are either with God, or against him" - God explains this by saying that everyone knows He exists by nature, that He wrote in our hearts and in their minds. To suppress this knowledge is denying the truth / God - by denying what you know, the truth / God then you are against Him. There are only two options according to God.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Saturday, January 21, 2017 - 04:46:40 PM
God is committing a fallacy.

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