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The logical fallacy of false dilemma (also called false dichotomy, the either-or fallacy) involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are other options. Closely related are failing to consider a range of options and the tendency to think in extremes, called black-and-white thinking. Strictly speaking, the prefix "di" in "dilemma" means "two". When a list of more than two choices is offered, but there are other choices not mentioned, then the fallacy is called the fallacy of false choice, or the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses.

False dilemma can arise intentionally, when fallacy is used in an attempt to force a choice ("If you are not with us, you are against us.") But the fallacy can arise simply by accidental omission—possibly through a form of wishful thinking or ignorance—rather than by deliberate deception ("I thought we were friends, but all my friends were at my apartment last night and you weren't there.")

When two alternatives are presented, they are often, though not always, two extreme points on some spectrum of possibilities. This can lend credence to the larger argument by giving the impression that the options are mutually exclusive, even though they need not be. Furthermore, the options are typically presented as being collectively exhaustive, in which case the fallacy can be overcome, or at least weakened, by considering other possibilities, or perhaps by considering a whole spectrum of possibilities, as in fuzzy logic.

Contents

Examples

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Morton's Fork

Very often a Morton's Fork, a choice between two equally unpleasant options, is a false dilemma. The phrase originates from an argument for taxing English nobles:

"Either the nobles of this country appear wealthy, in which case they can be taxed for good; or they appear poor, in which case they are living frugally and must have immense savings, which can be taxed for good."[1]

This is a false dilemma, because it fails to allow for the possibility that some members of the nobility may in fact lack liquid assets.

False choice

The presentation of a false choice often reflects a deliberate attempt to eliminate the middle ground on an issue. Eldridge Cleaver used such a quotation during his 1968 presidential campaign: "You're either part of the solution or part of the problem." [2]

A common argument against noise pollution laws involves a false choice. It might be argued that in New York City noise shouldn't be regulated, because if it were, the city would drastically change in a negative way. This argument involves assuming that for example: a bar must be shut down for it to not cause disturbing levels of noise after midnight. This ignores the fact that the bar could simply lower its noise levels, and/or install more soundproof structural elements to keep the noise from excessively transmitting onto others' properties.

Black and white thinking

A common form of the false dilemma is black-and-white thinking. Many people routinely engage in black-and-white thinking, an example of which is feeling boundless optimism when things are going well and suddenly switching to total despair at the first setback. Another example is someone who labels other people as all good or all bad.[3]

Falsum in uno, falsum in omnibus

This Latin phrase means "false in one thing, false in everything", and it is often used to label someone found to be wrong on one issue to also be wrong with regard to other issues.[4] This is a logical fallacy because being found incompetent in one respect does not imply that one is incompetent in all other respects. This is an example of an ad hominem argument and a special case of the association fallacy.

False Opposites

This dichotomy occurs when two extremes or opposites are presented in an argument, when in reality only one of those choices presented are, in actuality, physically possible. This usually occurs when a physically possible opposite gains an opposite through the human desire to constantly have a balance (through the creation of false opposites).

For example, the dichotomy between 'natural' and 'unnatural'. Unnatural is a false opposite because there cannot exist something which is outside of nature, as nature encompasses everything in existence.

See also

References

  1. ^ Evans, Ivor H. (1989). Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 14th edition, Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-016200-7.
  2. ^ Yale Book of Quotations [1] p158
  3. ^ AJ Giannini. Use of fiction in therapy. Psychiatric Times. 18(7):56-57,2001.
  4. ^ Lynch, Jack (2008). Deception and detection in eighteenth-century Britain. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 73.

External links

  • The Black-or-White Fallacy entry in The Fallacy Files
  • [2] article in Slate Magazine showing how President Barack Obama uses the False Dilemma Fallacy.

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