The false dilemma fallacy presents an issue as if there are only two ways to solve it—often, two opposite ways—when, in fact, there are more ways than that. The conflict between the two ways presented is also false.

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Another form of the false dilemma involves arguing that a certain thing will happen irrespective of what someone chooses. Usually, the one making this kind of argument has specific intentions.They are seeking to justify a choice, or to obtain a particular reaction from the other person, either openly or through manipulation.

To shield ourselves from the negative and coercive consequences of the false dilemma (the forced either-or choice), it’s important to identify that the two options presented are not the only ones available, and allow our minds to reason beyond them, discovering the not so readily visible options. Here’s how to do that:

1. By contesting the dichotomy suggested by the false dilemma

For instance, it’s a false dilemma to argue that the development of the human being depends solely on either the education it receives or its genetic inheritance—either nurture or nature. In reality, both play their equal parts, together with other factors ignored by the false dilemma. Someone who proposes such a distinction—either the education, or the genetic inheritance—has a superficial approach to the issue regarding the factors which contribute to human development (in which we include parents, the extended family, the environment, genetic inheritance, culture and history, and so on). Therefore, we can accept the two options being presented, while also discovering others.

2. By seeking to identify the intentions behind the false dilemma

We can hear fallacious arguments of this kind: “If I don’t give you a present for your birthday, I know you’ll be unhappy. If I give you one, I know you will still be unhappy with it. Therefore, whether I give you something or not, you will still be unhappy.” The person using this false dilemma is trying to justify either their pettiness and indifference, or their unwillingness to buy presents.

3. By reasoning out other possible alternatives

In some Christian circles, we may come across the belief that if you convert from one denomination to another, you will lose your salvation, after death and resurrection. The professed alternative is to hang on to your original denomination no matter what if you truly aspire to salvation. A closer look at this dilemma will prove it to be false, because this belief is not biblical. It even contradicts the principle of free will which the Christian religion postulates as being the advantage of any Christian’s conscience, a divine gift, and one which men cannot cancel.

I will continue by quoting a work with an incontestable historical value: unbelievable letters about Jan Hus, by Fra Poggius, a 15th century monk. He gives an account (as an eyewitness and a voter) of the way the Council of Constance was carried out. This was the trial where Jan Hus—the famous Czech forerunner to the Reformation, martyred by other Christians for his Christian faith—was sentenced to death.

The way in which the voters justified their choice to sentence him to death is stupefying due to its irrationality, and the multiple fallacies these noblemen and clerics used.

For instance, the Bishop of Rheims said: “If God looks favorably on your new faith, let Him perform a miracle here and now; if not, let the Bohemian perish! I vote for death!”1 Using the false dilemma, they thus challenge God to give them an answer on a matter of life and death. However, one knows that a miracle from heaven (which could have saved Hus from his conviction) is not produced at the order of a demanding believer who does not understand the true nature of Divinity. It was, therefore, very likely that nothing visible would happen, giving the impression that condemnation came as an answer from the Divine. In reality, no miracle came about in the way the archbishop was expecting it to happen. However, a lot of other alternatives could have qualified as an answer from God—in that particular context, silence was appropriate.

In a nutshell

This fallacy contains the false supposition that, in a given matter, there are only two alternatives, two possible options. The one making this argument convinces themselves that the solution to a problem consists in choosing between these two options. It is also referred to as the “either-or” fallacy: “To treat the flu I must either get a flu vaccine or take medicine.” Still, there are other available alternatives to consider, like natural treatment, toughening the immune system, having a healthy diet, an active lifestyle or even stoically enduring the evolution of the disease without intervention.

After the 9/11 terrorist attack, President George W. Bush publicly made use of a false dilemma: “You are either with us or against us in the war against terror!”2 A false dilemma can be exposed by carefully considering the facts of each situation. Those who limit themselves to superficial evaluations will fall into the coercive trap of false dilemmas.

Enhance your critical thinking. Read more of our articles on the topic.

Corina Matei, PhD, is an associate professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences and International Relations at Titu Maiorescu University.

Fra Poggius, Scrisori incredibile despre Jan Hus, Alege Viaţa Publishing, Bucharest, p. 80.
Nancy M. Cavender, Howard Kahane, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric. The Use of Reason in Everyday Life, Wadsworth, 2010, p. 58.