False dilemma

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A false dilemma, or false dichotomy, is a logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted. The reality in most cases is that there are many in-between or other alternative options, not just two mutually exclusive ones.

In other words, there are two ways in which one can commit a false dilemma. First, one can assume that there are only two (or three, though that case is strictly speaking be a “false trilemma”) options when there really are many more. Second, one can take the options to be mutually exclusive when they really are not.

As an example of the first, here is Reed Heustis’s attempt to prove that the Founding Fathers were deeply influenced by John Calvin:

By default, when one rejects Calvin’s presupposition, he necessarily adopts that of Karl Marx. Author of the Communist Manifesto, Marx presupposed that Man is inherently good, and that all of Man’s problems are the result of a bad environment.[1]

Since the founding fathers were clearly not Marxist, they must have been Calvinists. The rest of us may be inclined to think that, surely, there are more options here.

As an example of the second, here is Joel Richardson, in the WND, criticizing Ron Paul’s foreign policies:

According to Paul, radical Muslims are not radical because they have drunk deeply from the trough of an expansionist, racist and murderous ideology, but rather because American actions abroad have brought about the natural response of resistance.[2]

But of course, adopting one causal factor does not – despite what Richardson assumes – entail rejecting the other (though of course Richardson’s caricatures are also strawmen, even regarding an ideologue like Paul).

It is worth noting that it is not a false dilemma to present two options out of many if no conclusion is drawn based on their exclusivity: "you can have tea or coffee" is not a false dilemma, a fallacious form would require it be presented as an argument such as "you don't want tea, therefore you must want coffee."

[edit] Examples

Spotted in the wild:

  • One of the most common false dilemmas espoused by creationists, especially in the United States, is that if there is any flaw at all in the theories of evolution, then creation science is the only other possible truth. (Not even mainstream Christians accepting theistic evolution is acceptable.)
  • This same kind of wooish reasoning is employed, albeit less frequently, by many pseudoscience promoters, taking the form of "since science has not perfectly explained phenomena X yet, my pet goat claim must be true." The obvious rebuttal to this false dilemma is that the science only needs to be tweaked (or explored more) in order to provide an explanation. Even if it can't provide an answer immediately, of course, that is not proof of the "alternate" claim.
  • "America — Love It Or Leave It" is a popular false dilemma. The dilemma suggests that a "true patriot" must embrace everything ever done by America, or become un-American. However, since America as a nation was founded on the concept of respectful political dissent, one must doubt the premise of this false dilemma very seriously.
  • President George W. Bush stated, in a speech about the War on Terror, that "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."[3] Nonsense. Believing that some measures taken by the Dubya (or Obama, or any other) government were unnecessary, excessive or morally suspect obviously doesn't entail a murderous disregard for human life — quite the opposite, in many cases.
  • A false dichotomy similar to the last two surrounds discussions about Israel. One example of this is how some persons insist that being critical of the state of Israel or Israeli policies amounts to a) anti-Zionism and b) anti-Semitism. Another example is how persons both on the "pro-Palestinian side" and the "pro-Israeli side" claim that you cannot both support Israel's right to exist and Israel's right to self-defense and also support an independent Palestine.[4]
    • Ted Cruz (R-TX) said, after being booed and heckled during an appearance at a Defense of Christians unity dinner celebrating Christians facing persecution in the Middle East, "If you will not stand with Israel, then I will not stand with you," then walked off the stage in a petulant frenzy.[5] This could also be seen as a form of argumentum ad baculum.
  • Pascal's Wager states that it is more reasonable to believe in God and be wrong than to risk burning in Hell — which would be a pretty safe bet if one assumes that Jehovah is the only one true God and that He has supreme power and ultimate authority over all of the multitude of other deities that have been proposed over the millennia.
  • The concept, from both sides of the "debate," that science and religion are mutually exclusive and one cannot believe in both. (NOMA is an attempt to resolve this.)
  • C. S. Lewis perpetrated the famous "Lord, Liar, Lunatic" false trilemma: "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse." This trilemma is itself based on a false dilemma: either the claim of divinity attributed to the man Jesus is to be accepted as true and right and good, or that claim attributed to the man Jesus must be rejected as false: either insanely wrong or morally evil. Either you accept Jesus as "the Son of God," or you think this is no more valid than "I am a poached egg," and "I am God" is a lie from "the Devil of Hell."
  • Texas governor Rick Perry issued a debate challenge to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi during his 2012 GOP presidential candidate campaign, despite the fact that Pelosi isn't running and is a Democrat. Performing poorly in debates against other GOP candidates, he asked Pelosi to debate his own plan to reformat Washington, D.C. versus (his version of) the status quo — and if she refused, declined or did not respond, he told her that "I will take it to mean you will continue your obstructionist ways in the face of much needed Washington reform." Pelosi reportedly laughed at the request and declined, saying she was unavailable to debate due to a busy schedule.[6]
  • Darth Vader in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith told Obi-Wan Kenobi "If you're not with me, then you're my enemy," to which Obi-Wan replies, with some irony, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes."[7] I guess that tells you what Hollywood thinks about conservatives.
  • If you don't vote Republican, then you're supporting Democrats. (Or vice versa.)
  • And lest we forget, Matthew 12:30-33. (For the Biblically challenged, it starts with "He that is not with me is against me" and continues in the same direction.)

[edit] See also

When the choices are less than the ones presented:

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Article published in Worldview Weekend in 2009; it does not seem to be available at their website, but here is a discussion on Dispatches from the Culture Wars.
  2. Here be wingnuts
  3. Can be seen here.
  4. As memorably illustrated by Jon Stewart
  5. Cruz booed off stage, CNN
  6. Failing miserably in GOP debates, Perry challenges Pelosi instead, The Raw Story
  7. Lucas!

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