The Fallacy of the False Dilemma

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A button bearing the slogan, "U.S.A. Love it or leave it."
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The false dilemma is a fallacy of oversimplification that offers a limited number of options (usually two) when in reality more options are available. Also known as the either-or fallacy, the fallacy of the excluded middle, and the black and white fallacy.

Either-or arguments are fallacious because they tend to reduce complex issues to simplistic choices. 

Examples and Observations

  • "A false dilemma arises when we allow ourselves to be convinced that we have to choose between two and only two mutually exclusive options, when that is untrue. Generally, when this rhetorical strategy is used, one of the options is unacceptable and repulsive, while the other is the one the manipulator wants us to choose. Whoever succumbs to this trap has thus made a choice that is forced, and as such, of little value... Here are a few examples of common false dilemmas:
    • Either medicine can explain how Ms. X was cured, or it is a miracle. Medicine can't explain how she was cured. Therefore it is a miracle.
    • If we don't reduce public spending, our economy will collapse.
    • America: Love it or leave it.
    • The universe could not have been created from nothing, so it must have been created by an intelligent life force.
    Of course it is possible, using the same process, to create trilemmas, quadrilemmas, and so forth. Each time it is claimed (falsely) that the list of enumerated options is complete, and that one and only one acceptable option is hidden in that list."
    (Normand Baillargeon, A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense. Seven Stories Press, 2008)
  • "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."
    (President George W. Bush in his an address to the U.S. Congress in 2001)
  • "Is United right for your move? Ask yourself: do you want (A) a seamless professional move? Or (B) your possessions set on fire? (A) technology experts to set up your home network? Or (B) raccoons to run amok with your electronics? (A) portable containers to move yourself? Or (B) complete chaos? If you answered A, call United."
    (television commercial for United Van Lines, 2011)
  • "Proposed solutions frequently have an either/or fallacy: 'Either we ban boxing or hundreds of young men will be senselessly killed.' A third alternative is to change boxing's rules or equipment. 'If we don't provide farmers with low-interest loans, they will go bankrupt.' Increasing prices for farm products might be a better alternative."
    (Stephen Reid, The Prentice Hall Guide for College Writers, 5th ed., 2000)

A Morton's Fork

  • "'Roll Over or Get Tough' is a false dichotomy: instead of either passing Fox’s rate hikes on to the customer or depriving him of 24, Time Warner Cable could absorb the increased cost of programming itself. In logic, a choice between two unpleasant options is called a Morton’s Fork (also known as 'between a rock and a hard place'), after John Morton, a Lord Chancellor under Henry VII, who asserted that those who lived well were rich, and could therefore pay high taxes, while those who lived modestly had savings, and could also pay high taxes. Mark Turner, a professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve, explained that Time Warner’s use of the forced-choice device was wise from the standpoint of behavioral economics. In order to make choices, people need their options narrowed in advance. Turner said, '"By land or by sea"—that actually means "by any means whatsoever," but, even when you have a continuum, you can represent it by a pole, and that really catches people’s attention.' This principle was not lost on the producers of the horror movie Zombieland, whose posters, this summer, featured the tagline 'Nut Up or Shut Up.'"
    (Lauren Collins, "King Kong vs. Godzilla." The New Yorker, January 11, 2010)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "The Fallacy of the False Dilemma." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). The Fallacy of the False Dilemma. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Fallacy of the False Dilemma." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).