Either/Or – a claim that
presents an artificially limited range of choices.
An either/or fallacy occurs when a speaker
makes a claim (usually a premise in an otherwise valid deductive argument)
that presents an artificial range of choices. For instance, he may
suggest that there are only two choices possible, when three or more really
exist. Those who use an either/or fallacy try to force their audience
to accept a conclusion by presenting only two possible options, one of
which is clearly more desirable.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
These tactics are purposefully
designed to seduce those who are not well informed on a given topic.
A clever writer or speaker may use the either/or fallacy to make his idea
look better when compared to an even worse one. This type of selective
contrast is also a form of stacking the deck. This type of argument
violates the principles of civil discourse: arguments should enlighten
people, making them more knowledgeable and more capable of acting intelligently
A mother may tell her child: “Eat your broccoli or you won’t get desert.”
Children need this type
of black and white structuring until they can learn to make valid choices.
These types of arguments become fallacious, however, when they reduce a
complicated issue down to simple terms or when they deliberately obscure
other alternatives. Either/Or choices can also assume the form of
scare tactics. Sometimes, poorly-written multiple-choice tests contain
these fallacies: sometimes the student can justify more than one correct
choice, given different circumstances.
A firm believer states: “I'm not pro-choice; I'm pro-life.”
Politicians have wrapped this issue up into a messy ball of catch phrases. They assume that a person must have a definitive stand on the abortion issue across the board – either for it or against it. Using these terms, however, make this either/or fallacy especially comical. Who is not technically pro-“life”? We are all still here on this planet – living, eating, socializing, etc. – living life. We like life; we fully support it. On the other hand, we are all Americans whose speech is protected by the First Amendment that grants us freedom of intellectual choice. Therefore, aren’t we all technically pro-“choice” too?
We can play these word
games for hours, but these terms cannot adequately help us arrive at a
conclusion on this issue if they obscure the realities. Wouldn’t
some anti-abortion advocates be in favor of aborting a fetus in order to
save the life of the mother? So are they pro-“life” or “choice” if
they sacrifice one of them instead of both? … or neither? Do
you see how this gets us nowhere? The pro choice/life debate has
been “dumbed down” to these two equivocated, loaded, slanted, and distorted
terms that only get people mad. Life, death, and abortion are much
too complicated to be understood on a bumper sticker.
Be aware: the either/or
assertion does not express a pair of contradictory alternatives; rather,
they offer a pair of contrary alternatives (mere contraries do not exhaust
the possibilities). Light and dark, for example, are contraries because
they represent opposite qualities that are necessary in one in order to
define the other. Yet there are several in-between states of light
in our earth: dusk, twilight, eclipses, etc.
An ignorant friend might say: “I’m not a doctor, but your runny nose and cough tell me that you either have a cold or the flu.”
Well, the only truth
about the above statement is that the speaker is not a doctor. Although
most people with these symptoms really do have the common cold or a touch
of the flu, these options are not the only two available. Allergies,
bronchitis, or thousands of more serious diseases could all display these
two common symptoms. See your doctor for a diagnosis without relying
on overgeneralizations or either/or fallacies.
President George W. Bush: “You're either with us or against us.”
These types of arguments
falls because the audience is not given a fair choice – there exist many
alternate (and often more desirable) choices that are never offered to
the listener for consideration. Isn’t Switzerland a neutral country?
(Yes.) So, are they “for” or “against” the United States? Do
you love every part of your best friend’s personality? Does that
mean that you too are “for” or “against” this person?
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
If you claim that an argument involves false dilemma, however, the burden of proof is on you to show why the dilemma is false: be prepared to identify at least one additional, relevant option which is omitted that creates a false dilemma.
NOTE: Not every either/or
choice is fallacious — there may be only two reasonable alternatives.
Many lights, for example, are wired so that they must exist in one of two
states: on or off; likewise, a woman either is or is not pregnant, etc.