Background

Your friend Jamie expresses distaste for another fellow student, Alex. When you suggest that this might be the result of a simple misunderstanding, Jamie indignantly replies, “You’re either on my side or that jerk’s side, so which is it?”

Explanation

Jamie presented you with a false dilemma. They insist that there are only two options – either you completely agree with them or you’re plotting their downfall – when in reality there are more, like scrutinizing their petty hatred of another student so that they might make a new ally instead of an enemy.

False Dilemma

A false dilemma is a logical fallacy that claims there are only two choices when, upon closer inspection, there are more possibilities present. This binary perspective doesn’t account for the varied conditions and contexts that exist outside of the two possibilities. Therefore, a false dilemma frames any argument in a misleading way, obscuring rational, honest debate. Usually only two statements are presented for a false dilemma, but more can be included provided that there are still possibilities left unpresented. 

How It Works

The false dilemma is known by many names: excluded middle, fallacy of bifurcation, false dichotomy, black-or-white fallacy, all-or-nothing fallacy, and the either-or fallacy, to list a few. When presenting a false dilemma, the words “either or” are often used – either you’re pro-gun rights or you want to be oppressed by the government, either you recycle or you’re starting forest fires in your spare time, either you agree with me or you’re a horrible monster, etc.

The either-or fallacy is dangerous precisely because it locks people into a limited number of choices. Therefore, if one of two options is shown to be wrong or unacceptable, people are forced to go with the other one. People are steered into making a choice that they likely don’t fully agree with because it’s presented as the only logical choice. Other logical fallacies are often used with false dilemmas to make one choice seem vastly superior to another. 

It is important to remember that a choice is not automatically a fallacy of bifurcation simply because other options exist. If other options are not offered as a possibility rather than being hidden, the choice is a legitimate one. For example, if your mother says you can have either chicken or pasta for dinner, she’s offering you a choice from a limited number of options. While technically you could have anything for dinner, your mother has narrowed down the choices to two. The existence of other food isn’t being hidden from you and your mother isn’t trying to sway you to either of the two meals. Therefore, she offers you a legitimate choice rather than a false dilemma.

So What

False dilemmas are used quite often in not only political but also social spheres. They can appear dramatically in the form of ultimatums. Especially in these situations, it may take a lot of courage to resist such pressure to make the “right” choice and propose a hidden middle ground decision. However, it’s better to choose an option you genuinely believe in. In the short term, it may cause some problems, but you’ll be happier in the long run.

While they may seem like harmless oversimplifications, the black-or-white fallacy can be very dangerous. It’s important to think critically whenever you’re making a decision. If you don’t like the choices people present you, you don’t have to pick the lesser of two evils. Come up with a good solution and enact it. In the end, you’re only limited by your ability to think outside the box.

    Learn More

    1. Brisson, Janie, Henry Markovits, Serge Robert, and Walter Schaeken. “Reasoning from an incompatibility: False dilemma fallacies and content effects.” Memory & Cognition, vol 46, issue 5, July 2018, pp. 657-670. Doi: 10.3758/s13421-018-0804-x.
    2. Tomić, Taeda. “False Dilemma: A Systematic Exposition.” Argumentation, vol 27, issue 4, Nov 2013, pp. 347-368. Doi: 10.1007/s10503-013-9292-0.
    3. Van Vleet, Jacob E. Informal Logical Fallacies: A Brief Guide. University Press of America, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-7618-5432-6. 

    Think Further

    1. Where do you encounter false dilemmas?
    2. What are some negative political consequences of false dilemmas?
    3. What other logical fallacies are often used with false dilemmas?

    Teacher Resources

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