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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

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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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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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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