The false dilemma fallacy is a logical fallacy in the form of an ‘either/or scenario. Only limited options are presented when, in fact, there are more options than those presented to you.
This is a common tactic used in order to get a person or people to choose one desired option. The other option given in the false dilemma will be an undesirable option. The aim of this is to get the person to choose the desired option.
It is a powerful tactic because it makes one option seem like the best option when in fact it could be a situation that is very complex with lots of different possibilities.
Quick False Dilemma Examples
- Either go to college or you will be poor for the rest of your life.
- Either you are a vegetarian or you hate animals.
- As a boy, your only two options for sports are baseball or football.
- As a girl, you can either grow up to be a nurse or a teacher.
- You can either pick my mother up from the airport or she’ll have no way to get home.
- Either marry your current boyfriend or you’ll die alone.
- If we want a pet, then we can either get a cat or a dog.
- You can either vote Republican or Democrat in the next election.
- Either go to the gym today or you’ll get fat.
- Either go to the beach or stay home and do nothing with your day.
Detailed False Dilemma Fallacy Examples
1. Eat your veggies.
Scenario: If you are not a vegetarian you obviously hate animals. Why else would you want to eat them?
In this scenario, the false dilemma is between being a vegetarian or hating animals. The scenario presents these two options as the only possible ones.
It is obvious that a person could eat meat and have a very respectful view towards animals as well as being a loving pet owner. The key here is that on the subject of vegetarianism and respect towards animals there is a vast multitude of viewpoints and dietary options.
2. Make peace not war.
Scenario: The only way to have peace is to go to war and fight for it. Otherwise, you will only ever be at the mercy of others.
There have been many wars fought in the name of freedom and peace. The argument in this scenario is that there are only two options: fighting wars for peace or being at the mercy of others.
The two options are presented as absolutes and as such the argument is a false dilemma fallacy. Peace could be established by diplomacy, cooperation and trade, to name just a few.
3. Career prospects.
Scenario: At a high school graduation ceremony, a speaker is giving career advice to the graduates. They explain to the school that life is hard when you are an adult. You can either get an office job or end up homeless. The choice is yours.
The speaker at the graduation ceremony gives the high school graduates only two choices for their future. He tells them that they can either get an office job or be homeless.
There are many career paths a person can take in life and still be successful. The speaker is therefore creating a false dilemma for the high school graduates.
This also happens to be a slippery slope fallacy. There are a lot of other bad choices you need to make between rejecting an office job and becoming homeless, and it’s not a foregone conclusion!
4. Follow the sun.
Scenario: Climate change is a serious issue and fossil fuels are one of the most harmful pollutants. We need to make the shift to green energy. We either all get solar power or face the serious consequences of climate change.
The first point in this scenario is true. Climate change is a serious issue for us all. However, that does not mean that we should just accept the rest of the argument. We are given an option between either shifting to only solar energy or facing the consequences of climate change.
There are many options to solving climate change. While it is true that one of the options is solar power it is certainly not the only option. This argument for solar power, therefore, presents us with the false dilemma fallacy.
5. Play ball!
Scenario: A basketball team is losing their match. During the coach’s team talk, he says to the team: ‘it’s either my way or the highway’.
In order to get the team motivated and play the correct strategy, the coach does not want to allow any room for other opinions or options. He gives them two options, playing like he tells them to, or ‘the highway’.
In this scenario, the coach is committing the false dilemma fallacy. He is making out to the team like there are definitely only two possibilities. There are many possibilities the team could try in order to win the match. The coach just does not want them to be considered, and therefore, it is a false dilemma fallacy.
6. The big scoop.
Scenario: A rookie journalist is being shown around the office on his first day. The editor explains to him about what really makes money is advertising. Either you play by these rules or do something else.
The editor is giving the rookie journalist two options. Either he play by the rules or he can’t be a journalist. In addition to this he gives a justification for these options, that the only way to make money is through advertising.
However, the editor is committing the false dilemma fallacy because there are other ways to be a journalist other than working for a big company who is reliant on advertising revenue.
7. Making the team.
Scenario: If you have to play sport, the only two real ones are soccer and ice hockey. The rest are just children’s games.
There are so many different sports available to play for everyone. The idea that there are only two sports in this scenario creates a false dilemma fallacy.
Additionally, there is a weak justification for why there are only two ‘real’ sports. However, this should not distract from the logical fallacy being committed.
8. Do you want to get rich?
Scenario: The best thing to invest in is gold, the price always goes up. I mean, it’s either that or the stock market, which always crashes.
This scenario presents us with two options when it comes to investment. Gold is claimed to be the best and the stock market the worst. The way this is framed makes it seem like there are only two choices and only one of them is the good one, gold.
However, this is a false dilemma as the stock market is much more complex and there are many modes of investment within the stock market and elsewhere.
9. You are either with me or against me.
Scenario: An army sergeant is explaining to his troops that there are only two kinds of people: allies or enemies.
Training in the military is tough and it is an extremely demanding service. However, there are many different ways people can be seen from a military perspective. People and countries can be neutral for instance.
Therefore, the sergeant in this scenario is committing the false dilemma fallacy.
10. Painting with broad strokes.
Scenario: An artist’s journey is a hard one. You either make it, or you don’t.
In this scenario, the only two options are that an artist either succeeds or they don’t. Success is not so simply categorized. For different artists the idea of success may be different and it surely comes in degrees rather than absolutes. An artist could be successful but not as successful as another.
The idea that an artist either succeeds or not in such absolute terms is, therefore, a false dilemma fallacy.
11. Quick answers.
Scenario: Science is actually very simple. There’s a lot of math and data and such but it will always give you a straight yes or no when it finds an answer.
Besides the careless statement that science is really simple the two options given to us are that the answers science gives are always ‘straight’ yes or no answers.
The first thing to note is that science is extremely complex. Due to this, the answers it gives can sometimes also be very complicated and do not give an absolute certain yes or no. This scenario, therefore, presents us with a false dilemma fallacy.
12. Somebody, help!
Scenario: John and Stacy are have lost their way in the woods but they have not wandered far from Stacy’s home. John says to Stacy: ‘Well, we can either stay here and die or hope someone finds us’.
John is being melodramatic in this scenario, though because of the stress of being lost in the woods it is understandable. He presents two options to Stacy, either they stay where they are or someone finds and rescues them.
This is a false dilemma fallacy as there are many things they could do to try and find their way back.
13. Furry friends.
Scenario: Carol has just moved into a new house with a garden. Her and her partner are discussing getting a pet. Carol says to her partner: ‘Our options are a cat or a dog’.
Carol is presenting her partner with a false dilemma because she frames the options of a dog or a cat as the only possible ones. However, there are many possible pets a person could own, even if a dog or a cat are the most common ones.
14. Just two a day.
Scenario: I’ve never believed in vitamin supplements. They either make you really healthy or they don’t do anything. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen anyone’s life turn around because of them.
In this scenario the false dilemma is that we have only have two options which don’t allow for any compromise or nuance. Either vitamins are incredibly effective or they are useless.
This is a false dilemma fallacy because it is not the case that vitamins have to dramatically improve someones health to be effective at all. There are many ways in which vitamins could be somewhat or slightly effective.
15. The best Religion.
Scenario: We have so many religions in the world. If there is a higher power, either one of them must be right and or they are all wrong.
Regardless of if you believe in a higher power or not the key issue for us is if the scenario is logical or there is a fallacy being committed. We are presented with two possibilities for if there is a higher power.
Either one religion is correct or they are all wrong. The second option implies that there can only be on religion. This is a false dilemma fallacy, because, if there is a higher power, many religions could have got some things right about it. There is therefore at least a third option if not more.
Other Logical Fallacies
- Begging the Question Fallacy
- Equivocation Fallacy
- Hasty Generalization Fallacy
- Appeal to Tradition Fallacy
- Gambler’s Fallacy
As much as we like to give definite answers with clear boundaries life is often much more complicated than this. A false dilemma fallacy embodies this desire for safe and sure choices in a complex and ever changing world. It is important to be able to embrace the complexity of a situation without being forced into choosing between only a few options without any clear reason why.
Recognizing the either/or structure of a false dilemma fallacy is a great way avoid this trap. If possibilities are presented as solutions to something, remember to not just accept them as they are but ask yourself, why are these the solutions I am considering?
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.