Critical Thinking Toolkit: False Dilemma

Choices are important. Every day, we make lots of decisions about what to do and what to say. When decisions are especially important is when two possible paths we might take are totally opposite another or grind against one another. There is a certain tension that arises in decisions that carry a great deal of importance and are completely different. In story-telling, love triangles are an example of such tension – if I like two people and can only choose one, who do I choose? Sophie’s choice – a heartbreaking decision of which of your children dies and which live – would be another powerful example of how weighty decisions can be.

This weight carries over into the intellectual sphere as well. Sometimes, believing one thing versus another carries with it huge implications. Is there really any such thing as morality, or is it all a matter of biologically-wired, emotionally-charged opinions? If there is such a thing as morality, what system of morality is most accurate? Does God exist or not, and what are the implications of each? These are hotly contested for a reason – you can’t choose both, and either option you choose in these debates has widespread implications.

Situations like these are often called dilemmas. This comes from the prefix di-, meaning two, and -lemma, meaning premise or proposition. Thus, what a dilemma does is to put forward two ideas, two premises, two propositions, that conflict with each other in a foundational way. When such conflict is encountered, there are three options. You can accept the first premise and reject the second, you can accept the second premise and accept the first, or you can conclude that something fundamentally wrong with the ideas involved. Dilemmas are very often used in logic and argumentation, and so it is important to understand the relevant terminology.

In philosophy, dilemmas are used both to clarify positions and to try to prove a point of your own. Any dilemma will involve two statements, which we will call A and B, which we call the horns of the dilemma. You might also think of these as ‘forks in a road.’ In philosophy, it is much more common to use dilemmas as a way to prove a point of some kind, usually that something is impossible. The dilemmatic way of thinking would proceed as follows: “Given such-and-such a way of thinking, one of A and B must be true, and they cannot both be true. So either A is true, B is true, or such-and-such way of thinking is absurd and must be rejected.”

A good example of this kind of argument would be moral dilemmas. One famous example is the example of hiding a Jewish family from Nazis. Now, we know that generally speaking we are morally obligated to not lie and we are also morally obligated to save lives. But, if we were in Nazi Germany hiding a Jewish family, and a Nazi officer comes to our door and ask if we are hiding any Jews, what do we do? In this circumstance, no matter what we do, we will violate one of the moral principles we’ve just mentioned. If we say yes, we avoid lying by allowing harm to come to others, but if we say no, then we save others by lying. So, what do we say here? There are three options you could hypothetically take here. You could argue that protecting the family is more important and so you should even though lying is normally bad, you could argue that telling the truth is more important and so you should say yes, or you could say that this proves that this proves that morality is a construct that cannot fit into yes/no categories at all.

I view this example as legitimate dilemma. But there are attempts at similar dilemmas that are, in a way, fundamentally broken. These broken examples are the topic of this post.

What is a False Dilemma?: A false dilemma, sometimes called a false dichotomy, happens when you present an either/or situation when there are actually other options. In the language I’ve been using before, this would be telling someone that they have to choose between A or B, but really there is another option C that is also viable. There are many well-rehearsed examples of false dilemmas in popular culture that many people do not realize are false dilemmas, and we will overview some of these in some examples later. For now, it is important to discuss how to overcome a false dilemma if someone puts you into one.

How to Overcome a False Dilemma: If someone walks up to me and gives me a false dilemma, in other words, if they present an argument in which they claim that I absolutely have to choose between two options A and B that I do not actually accept, how do I overcome this problem? It is actually quite simple. All you have to do is show them that actually, there is another option, say C. You don’t even actually have to believe C yourself, but ideally you ought to believe C, since otherwise your interlocutor would just construct a trilemma (like a dilemma, but with three instead of two options) and you’d still be stuck.

A Few Examples

Here are a few examples of false dilemmas. To rehearse your understanding of what false dilemmas are, find additional alternatives that defeat these false dilemmas:

  • “Steve just disagreed with that atheist’s argument, so he must be a Christian.”
  • “I recently heard Sally say that she doesn’t like the Democratic platform. She must be a Republican.”
  • “That guy just said he approved of President Trump’s recent executive order. He must agree with everything that guy says.”
  • “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Anna eat meat. She must be a vegan!”

Some or all of these are probably obviously flawed. That’s ok – that’s the point. These particularly egregious examples of false dilemmas serve as “muscle memory” for your brain. Simpler examples of fallacies help you spot harder ones.

Now, let’s take a look at a harder one.

A Tricky Example – Euthyphro’s Dilemma

Euthyphro’s dilemma is one of the older dilemmas in philosophy, and continues to raise its head in discussions of ethics today. Many people think it is a legitimate dilemma, and a great many disagree. Before we come to any conclusions, let’s take a look at the dilemma. It will serve as an example of a dilemma that is tricky enough that it still occasionally retrieves attention in academia today.

In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” This dilemma is meant as a kind of refutation of those who believe in God and in objectively-binding moral values and duties. In more modern language, the dilemma is often presented in the following way: Is something good because it is God wills it, or does God will it because it is good? This is a dilemma – it presents two alternatives. If the first is true – if things are good because God wills them – then if God willed that we murder people, murder would become good. The difference between good and evil would become arbitrary, which is an unacceptable conclusion. If, on the other hand, if God wills things because they are good, then goodness is outside of God, which contradicts the classical position of those who believe in God. So, as the dilemma says, we should conclude that something is terribly wrong with the idea of God.

But, is this a real dilemma? I don’t think so. To see more clearly why, let’s use some shorthand. Let’s represent “God wills it” by A and “being good” as B. To say that “something is good because God wills it” is to say “because God wills something, therefore it is good.” In other words, the first horn of the dilemma states that “A implies B.” In just the same way, the other horn of the dilemma can be stated in the form of “B implies A.”

Now, take a minute to think about this. Is is always true that, given two statements A and B, one must imply the other? Well, of course not. Certain statements are logically independent, so that neither one implies the other or rejects the other. So at least a priori, this is a false dilemma. The one who supports the Euthyphro dilemma must provide explanation of why these are the only alternatives. But the person who says God exists has options. For example, the Christian can say that it isn’t true that one of these explains the other, but that actually God’s will and the ultimate source of goodness are just the same thing. So, it isn’t true that one comes before the other (as the dilemma suggests). To say that “A and B are different ways of expressing the same thing” is not at face value the same thing as either horn of the dilemma, and so the advocate of the Euthyphro dilemma must either show how this new position actually is one of the horns or how this position is impossible. Therefore, I think this another example of a false dilemma.

Even if you disagree with me here, this should serve as an example of how to identify and approach trickier instances of false dilemmas.

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