A false dilemma (also called false dichotomy, false binary, black-and-white thinking, bifurcation, denying a conjunct, the either–or fallacy, fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses, the fallacy of false choice, the fallacy of the false alternative, or the fallacy of the excluded middle) is a type of informal fallacy that involves a situation in which only limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option. The opposite of this fallacy is argument to moderation.
The options may be a position that is between two extremes (such as when there are shades of grey) or may be completely different alternatives. Phrasing that implies two options (dilemma, dichotomy, black-and-white) may be replaced with other number-based nouns, such as a "false trilemma" if something is reduced to only three options.
The false dilemma fallacy also can arise simply by accidental omission of additional options rather than by deliberate deception. Additionally, it can be the result of habitual, patterned, black-and-white and/or intensely political/politicized thinking whereby a model of binary (or polar) opposites is assigned or imposed to whatever regarded object/context, almost automatically--a process that may ignore both complexity and alternatives to more extreme juxtaposed archetypes; binary opposition is explored extensively in critical theory.
Some philosophers and scholars believe that "unless a distinction can be made rigorous and precise it isn't really a distinction". An exception is analytic philosopher John Searle, who called it an incorrect assumption that produces false dichotomies. Searle insists that "it is a condition of the adequacy of a precise theory of an indeterminate phenomenon that it should precisely characterize that phenomenon as indeterminate; and a distinction is no less a distinction for allowing for a family of related, marginal, diverging cases." Similarly, when two options are presented, they often are, although not always, two extreme points on some spectrum of possibilities; this may lend credence to the larger argument by giving the impression that the options are mutually exclusive of each other, even though they need not be. Furthermore, the options in false dichotomies typically are presented as being collectively exhaustive, in which case the fallacy may be overcome, or at least weakened, by considering other possibilities, or perhaps by considering a whole spectrum of possibilities, as in fuzzy logic.
Morton's fork, a choice between two equally unpleasant options, is often 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."
This is a false dilemma and a "Catch-22", because it fails to allow for the possibility that some members of the nobility may in fact lack liquid assets, as well as the possibility that those who appear poor may actually be poor.
The presentation of a false choice often reflects a deliberate attempt to eliminate several options that may occupy the middle ground on an issue. A common argument against noise pollution laws involves a false choice. It might be argued that in New York City noise should not be regulated, because if it were, the city would drastically change in a negative way. This argument assumes that, for example, a bar must be shut down to prevent disturbing levels of noise emanating from it after midnight. This ignores the fact that the bar could simply lower its noise levels, or install soundproofing structural elements to keep the noise from excessively transmitting onto others' properties.
In psychology, a phenomenon related to the false dilemma is black-and-white thinking. There are people who routinely engage in black-and-white thinking, an example of which is someone who categorizes other people as all good or all bad.
- Correlative-based fallacies
- Critical theory
- Degrees of truth
- Hobson's choice
- Law of excluded middle
- Learned helplessness
- Loaded question
- Love–hate relationship
- Multi-valued logic
- Nolan Chart
- None of the above
- One-party system
- Pascal's Wager
- Principle of bivalence
- Rogerian argument
- Show election
- Sorites paradox
- Strange loop
- Thinking outside the box
- Two-party system
- Jacques Derrida (1991) Afterword: Toward An Ethic of Discussion, published in the English translation of Limited Inc., pp.123-4, 126
- Searle, John. (1983) The Word Turned Upside Down. The New York Review of Books, Volume 30, Number 16, October 27, 1983.
- Evans, Ivor H. (1989). Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 14th edition, Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-016200-7.
- AJ Giannini. Use of fiction in therapy. Psychiatric Times. 18(7):56-57,2001.
- The Black-or-White Fallacy entry in The Fallacy Files