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, fallacy of the excluded middle, the fallacy of false choice, or the fallacy of the false alternative) 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" ("false trichotomy," etc.) if something is reduced to only three options.
A false dilemma can arise intentionally, when a fallacy is used in an attempt to force a choice or outcome.
The false dilemma fallacy also can arise simply by accidental omission of additional options rather than by deliberate deception. For example "Stacey spoke out against capitalism, therefore she must be a communist" (she may be neither). "Roger opposed an atheist argument against Christianity, but he would say that, he's a Christian" (When it's assumed the opposition by itself means he's a Christian). Roger might be an atheist who disagrees with the logic of some particular argument against Christianity. Additionally, it can be the result of habitual tendency, whatever the cause, to view the world with limited sets of options. Conversely some believe free will is the ability to choose from beyond apparent options.
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 because it fails to allow for the possibility of nobles that are neither wealthy nor poor, or the possibility that those members of the nobility 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.
- Bounce Exchange (advertising company known for email signup pop-up ads presenting a false dilemma, such as "I'm not looking to lose weight” when declining subscription to a weigh-loss email newsletter)
- Correlative-based fallacies
- Critical theory
- Degrees of truth
- Fallacy of the single cause
- Hobson's choice
- Law of excluded middle
- Learned helplessness
- Lewis' trilemma
- Loaded question
- Love–hate relationship
- Love it or leave it
- Multi-valued logic
- Nolan Chart
- None of the above
- One-party system
- Pascal's Wager
- Principle of bivalence
- Rogerian argument
- Show election
- Slippery slope
- Sorites paradox
- Splitting (psychology)
- Strange loop
- Straw man
- Thinking outside the box
- Two-party system
- You're either with us, or against us
- 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.
- Baronett, Stan (2008). Logic. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall. p. 101. ISBN 9780131933125. Retrieved 31 October 2015.
- Arfi, Badredine (2010). Linguistic fuzzy logic methods in social sciences (1. ed.). Berlin, Germany: Springer. ISBN 9783642133428. Retrieved 31 October 2015.
- Evans, Ivor H. (1989). Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 14th edition, Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-016200-7.
- NICK DESANTIS (23 January 2012). "Data Shows Bars With Most Noise Complaints, But Is It Just Sound and Fury?". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 October 2015.
- AJ Giannini. Use of fiction in therapy. Psychiatric Times. 18(7):56-57,2001.
- The Black-or-White Fallacy entry in The Fallacy Files