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In 2001, then-president George W. Bush was quoted making the following statement to Congress in response to the attacks on 9/11:
“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
In the time since, President Bush has been criticized for his all-or-nothing view on geopolitics. His claim has been rightfully presented as an example of a false dichotomy fallacy.
False dichotomies are a particularly nasty logical fallacy that is commonly seen in everyday discourse. False dichotomies—also called false dilemmas or either-or fallacies—are a kind of fallacy in reasoning. False dichotomies result from assuming that a particular situation or problem has two mutually exclusive modes or solutions and ignoring a potential third option.
False dilemmas result from our tendency for black-and-white thinking and are often used rhetorically to illegitimately strengthen one’s position. Today, we’re going to cover the basics of this fallacious form of reasoning, present some false dichotomy fallacy examples, and talk about how to respond to these kinds of arguments.
What are False Dichotomies?
A false dichotomy arises when a person presents two mutually exclusive options in the context of some argument. Let’s return to the fallacious piece of reasoning given by George Bush that we opened with:
“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
This argument is a false dichotomy as it presents two mutually exclusive options when there are actually other possibilities. Bush makes the fallacious argument that all nations that don’t share his administration’s hardline stance on terrorism are, in fact, terrorist sympathizers. This is an unjustified assumption though. It’s entirely possible for a person to both be against terrorism and not agree with the Bush administration’s draconian policies on the matter.
The fact that the argument ignores a third possibility is precisely what makes it a false dichotomy. False dichotomies are logical fallacies because they present two mutually exclusive options as the only possible options. False dilemma arguments obscure the fact that alternative possibilities might exist that are different from either of the presented options.
Logical Form of a False Dilemma Fallacy
A false dichotomy argument has a pretty simple logical form:
False dilemmas bear a close resemblance to disjunctive syllogismswhich are a valid form of philosophical argument, which is one reason why they can be difficult to detect if you aren’t careful. They look like logically sound arguments but are in fact not.
False dilemmas are informal fallacies so their deficiencies can’t be explained by their logical form alone. False dichotomies make one or both of two very important assumptions about the starting premises of the argument.
The Rhetoric of False Dichotomy Fallacies
False dilemmas are often used in a rhetorical fashion to make a person’s argument seem stronger than it is. False dichotomy arguments get used as a means to obscure middle ground in a debate and convince the audience that one’s position is the only reasonable view. For example, a person may claim that you must believe either their view or an alternate absurd view. They then argue that the denial of their view necessarily means the acceptance of the absurd view.
False dichotomies are also used as a way to dismiss a person’s view by claiming it must lead to one of two absurd situations. For instance, a person might claim that their opponent’s view commits them to believing either A or B, where A and B are absurd possibilities. The argument is fallacious if it ignores a third possibility that is neither A nor B.
In that sense, false dichotomies share many features with a straw man fallacy. They are often a consequence of a person reducing their opponent’s view to an absurd caricature as a means to contrast it with their own view which sounds reasonable in comparison.
6 False Dichotomy Examples
Argument: “We shouldn’t support immigrants or give them access to social services and free things. After all, why should we help immigrants when there are homeless Americans on the streets?”
Counter: This argument presents a false dichotomy as it presents the issue as if the only two exclusive possibilities are to extend social support to immigrants or to native-born citizens. Obviously, extending social support to poor immigrants and extending social support to poor native-born Americans are compatible courses of action. It is possible to help the two groups of people at the same time. The argument is fallacious as it implies the decision of who to help is an either-or choice and choosing one necessarily rules out the other.
2. Science vs Religion
People often encounter false dilemmas in the context of debates surrounding science and religion.
Argument: “You can’t both believe in science and be religious. If you believe in science, you must reject the claims of religion and religious experience.”
Counter: This argument presents a false dilemma as it presents belief in science and belief in religion as exclusive and incompatible. The idea is that a person can’t both hold scientific and religious beliefs on pain of contradiction. While it is true that some specific scientific and religious claims conflict (the age of the Earth, for example) it is possible for certain beliefs about science and religion to be compatible with each other. The choice between the two is not necessarily mutually exclusive.
For instance, it is possible to both believe that God created the universe and that the universe operates according to natural laws that are discoverable by science. God could’ve just been the entity that created those laws that govern the universe. After all, several great scientists were fairly religious themselves.
Argument: “We can’t be for any taxation. In fact, the situation is pretty simple. Either you are for freedom and no taxes or you are a communist that wants to install tyranny and terror.”
Counter: This argument is a false dichotomy example as it presents the issue as if the only two possible situations are one with no taxes at all (and thus, maximum “freedom”) and a brutal communist regime that does not allow personal property.
Upon closer inspection, it is pretty obvious that the choice between taxes and private property is not a mutually exclusive one. It is completely possible to both be for freedom and think that we should have some forms of taxation. The argument presents the horns of the dilemma as if there is an all-or-nothing choice between absolute freedom and crushing tyranny.
This particular argument-pattern about taxation is often combined with a slippery slope fallacy to great rhetorical effect. In both cases, the argument can be refuted by pointing out that balancing taxation with private property has been how basically every single society in history has functioned.
As is the case with pretty much every single logical fallacy out there, false dichotomies are all over the place in politics. Here’s one that is relevant to contemporary events.
Argument: “You cannot call yourself an ally of Israel and criticize their interactions with Palestine. If you do criticize the nation of Israel then that makes you anti-Semitic and means you invariably support terrorists.”
Counter: This argument presents a false dichotomy as it asserts that the only two possibilities are either fully accepting Israel’s military presence and activity without question or outing yourself as an anti-Semite.
It is entirely possible to legitimately criticize the military actions of some nation without being prejudiced against its inhabitants. It is possible to disagree with Israel’s policies and still support them in other ways. At the same time, criticizing action from Palestinian militants is similarly not the same as pledging allegiance to Israel. There is room for alternate possibilities in these scenarios.
False dichotomies color our decision making all the time. Here is an example you might have run into in your everyday life.
Argument: “Listen man, you really should come out to a bar with us tonight. Otherwise, you are just going to sit at home bored all night doing nothing.”
Counter This argument presents a false dilemma by assuming that the only two options are going out or sitting at home alone bored all night. This is an unjustified assertion though; there are plenty of other things you could do besides going out to a bar or sitting at home alone by yourself.
This example is pretty silly, but it illustrates an important point about how black-and-white thinking can cloud our judgment. Inadvertently slipping into a false dilemma mode of thinking prevents us from thinking outside of the box and finding novel solutions to our problems. Thinking in terms of false dichotomies artificially limits our options and actions.
6. Nature vs Nurture
Argument: “Everything about your person is due to your genetics. All physical and mental facts about a person are dependent on their DNA, so character traits and other features are a matter of nature, not nurture.”
Counter: This is an extremely common argumentative pattern that even professional biologists fall into sometimes. The argument can be considered a false dichotomy because it assumes that human character traits must derive from either nature (e.g. DNA and genetics) or nurture (e.g. environment).
The dichotomy between nature and nurture is a false one. A person’s environment and genetics interact in seamless and reciprocal ways, so it’s incorrect to say that any one particular trait is a strict result of a person’s DNA or of their environment.
For example, you may have a genetic marker associated with some trait but it could be not expressed due to environmental influences. Genetics is a complex business and reducing debates down to a nature/nurture dichotomy obscures how human beings actually develop through a complex interaction of genes and environment.
Not all arguments that present a dichotomy are fallacious. In some instances, there really might only be two options or responses to a particular scenario. For example, consider the following claim:
“It is either permissible to harm someone for my own personal benefit or it is not permissible to do so.”
This statement presents 2 possibilities in either-or form, but it is not a false dichotomy. The statement is not a false dichotomy as it presents the only two logically possible scenarios. One of the possibilities presented must be true and they cannot both be true at the same time. Here is another example of a genuine dichotomy:
“The number 2 is either a rational number or it is an irrational number.”
This is not a false dichotomy because it presents the only two logical possibilities. All numbers are either rational or irrational and no number can be both.
In other words, some dichotomies are formulated out of statements that are genuinely collectively exhaustive and mutually exclusive. In these cases, the dichotomy is genuine and accepting one entails the rejection of the other. False dichotomies are presented as if the options are exhaustive and exclusive when they are actually not.
Responding to False Dichotomy Fallacies
There are two major strategies for responding to a false dichotomy fallacy:
Sometimes, a false dichotomy can be refuted by attacking an incorrect premise directly. If one of the premises of the false dichotomy is clearly incorrect, then attacking that premise directly might be more useful than showing how the presented dilemma is a false one.
Learn How to Respond to Other Types of Logical Fallacies
- 5 Appeal to Nature Fallacy Examples in Media and Life
- 6 Outcome Bias Examples That Can Negatively Impact Your Decisions
- 7 Self-Serving Bias Examples You See Throughout Life
- 7 Omission Bias Examples That Negatively Impact Your Life
- 6 Authority Bias Examples That Might Impact Your Decisions
- 5 Burden of Proof Fallacy Examples
- 5 Appeal to Tradition Fallacy Examples in Life
- 5 Appeal to Authority Logical Fallacy Examples
- 7 False Cause Fallacy Examples
- 7 Appeal to Ignorance Fallacy Examples
- 7 Appeal to Common Sense Logical Fallacy Examples
- 5 Post Hoc Fallacy Examples (and How to Respond to This Argument)
- Gambler’s Fallacy: 5 Examples and How to Avoid It
- 5 Appeal to Anger Fallacy Examples Throughout Life
- 7 Halo Effect Bias Examples in Your Daily Life
- 7 Poisoning the Well Examples Throughout Your Life
- 7 Survivorship Bias Examples You See in the Real World
- 7 Dunning Kruger Effect Examples in Your Life
- 7 Either Or (“False Dilemma”) Fallacy Examples in Real Life
- 5 Cui Bono Fallacy Examples to Find Out “Who Will Benefit”
- 6 Anchoring Bias Examples That Impact Your Decisions
- 7 Virtue Signaling Examples in Everyday Life
- 7 Cherry Picking Fallacy Examples for When People Ignore Evidence
- 9 Circular Reasoning Examples (or “Begging the Question”) in Everyday Life
- 9 Appeal to Emotion Logical Fallacy Examples
- 9 Appeal to Pity Fallacy (“Ad Misericordiam”) Examples in Everyday Life
- 9 Loaded Question Fallacy Examples in Life and Media
- 9 Confirmation Bias Fallacy Examples In Everyday Life
- 9 Bandwagon Fallacy Examples to Prevent Poor Decisions
- 5 Red Herring Fallacy Examples to Fight Irrelevant Information
- 9 Middle Ground Fallacy Examples to Spot During an Argument
- 5 False Equivalence Examples to Know Before Your Next Argument
- 7 Hasty Generalization Fallacy Examples & How to Respond to Them
- 6 Straw Man Fallacy Examples & How You Can Respond
- 7 Slippery Slope Fallacy Examples (And How to Counter Them)
Final Thoughts on False Dichotomy Fallacies
False dichotomies are a result of our human tendency to think in binary notions about things. While in many cases binary thinking can be correct (i.e. logic/mathematics), binary thinking often leads to fallacious reasoning.
Given that false dichotomies are so prevalent in everyday discourse, knowing how to respond to them is important. Liberating your mind from these limiting beliefs is a way to cultivate good mental habits and to unlock your rational potential.
Finally, if you want a simple process to counter the logical fallacies and cognitive biases you encounter in life, then follow this 7-step process to develop the critical thinking skills habit.
Alex Bolano is a freelance writer based out of St. Louis. He holds his MA in Philosophy and writes on topics relating to science, culture, politics, finance, and education. He enjoys playing video games and researching the latest trends in science and technology.