False Dilemma (Either-Or Fallacy, Black and White Fallacy).

As we explain in the section on options, whenever you are presented with two possibilities, it is crucial to establish whether those possibilities are contradictions, contraries, or choices. Presenting two options as if they were contradictions or contraries, when in fact they are not, is the common fallacy of false dilemma--so called because the "dilemma," or hard choice between two options, is "false," because other options than the two offered are possible. This fallacy is also known as the "either-or fallacy" because it makes you think that your options are limited to either one or the other. Consider the following "patriotic" examples:
  1. America: love it or leave it.
  2. My country right or wrong.
  3. Better dead than red.
All three examples simplify the issues they concern. "America: love it or leave it" offers only two options, but there are plenty of others. Staying but not loving it, and leaving but still loving it, are only two of the many possibilities. Notice the difference between this false dilemma and the similar claim, "America: if you don't love it, you ought to leave it." The latter is a statement of advocacy, and while the options seem to be the same (loving or leaving), the result is quite different. "You ought to leave it" does not imply this is the only alternative, only that it is the most proper alternative. The claim thereby suggests there are good reasons for advocating the option of "leaving," instead of limiting consideration, as does the fallacy, to "leaving" as the only other option.
The second example, "My country right or wrong," is not a false dilemma. The phrase means something like, "It's my country, whether the country acts properly or not." There are no options involved; and this example serves as a good reminder not to assume that every claim containing an "or" is necessarily an option, let alone a false dilemma.
Finally, "Better dead than red," a Cold War slogan meaning that someone would rather die fighting than live under Communism, is another example of a false dilemma. There are, no doubt, some instances where one must choose between those two alternatives, and no others; context is often necessary to make a definitive judgment on a fallacy. But most contexts in which the phrase was used had many other options.

As you can see, you must be especially careful any time an argument seems to be presenting you with only two options. Yet the way such attempts at persuasion are worded, we often feel compelled to respond in those terms. Imagine someone asking, "Are you with us or against us?" You might be tricked into deciding between those two options, but the best response would be to say, "Wait a minute! Those are not the only two possibilities."

Your first response, then, should be to establish whether A and B, the two options you've been given, are either contradictory or contrary in the context. The following questions should help:
Does rejecting A necessarily mean accepting B? If so, A and B are contradictory.
Does accepting A necessarily mean rejecting B? If so, A and B are either contrary or contradictory.
But a simpler way would be to ask:
Are any other pertinent responses possible?
If there are, you are dealing with a false dilemma.

Exercises

1. Which of the following is not a false dilemma?

Your grades show you just aren't trying. Either study more, or drop out of school!

The Bulldogs are the first-place team, so either we beat them tonight and gain a little self-respect, or we lose like everyone expects us to, and hide our faces in shame!

I'm tired of seeing that mess in your room. Either you straighten it up, or I will!

I can't believe you voted to restrict welfare. Either you didn't understand the proposition, or you just don't care about those less fortunate than yourelf!

1. Which of the following is not a false dilemma? You answered:

Your grades show you just aren't trying. Either study more, or drop out of school!

We'll skip the issue of whether low grades actually indicate whether a student is trying or not, and focus on the dilemma here, which is false. "Study more" and "drop out" are not necessarily contradictory. The contradiction of "drop out," for example, is "don't drop out," but that doesn't imply "study more." In other words, there are other alternatives besides studying more and dropping out. One might take difference classes, or learn to study more effectively, or study less and get more sleep the night before an exam.

1. Which of the following is not a false dilemma? You answered:

The Bulldogs are the first-place team, so either we beat them tonight and gain a little self-respect, or we lose like everyone expects us to, and hide our faces in shame!

Or maybe they could play a great game and still lose, but come out of it feeling good about their performance. That's only one option beyond the false dilemma offered here of "win self-respect" or "lose in shame."

1. Which of the following is not a false dilemma? You answered:

I'm tired of seeing that mess in your room. Either you straighten it up, or I will!

Correct!

Those two choices (you straighten up, or I will) may seem like the only possibilities. But the speaker is saying that, if the first does not happen, then she or he will make sure the second does. So this is not a false dilemma, but a clear choice between two contradictions.

1. Which of the following is not a false dilemma? You answered:

I can't believe you voted to restrict welfare. Either you didn't understand the proposition, or you just don't care about those less fortunate than yourelf!

The speaker is assuming that their are only two kinds of people who voted for the proposition: those who didn't understand it, and those who don't care. But these two categories are not necessarily contradictory: someone may have voted for the proposition, for example, who did understand it, and who does care about those less fortunate, but who cares more about limiting the role of government.

Congratulations!

You have completed the exercises for the fallacy of false dilemma.