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L&FP, 51: The fallacy of the false dilemma

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A classic rhetorical tactic is to pose a dilemma, an argument where the opponent is presented with alternatives, all bad so forcing him or her to either make a bad choice or back away from the position taken. In a variant, one of the choices is presented as a lesser of evils, which is to be taken even reluctantly.

It is a powerful rhetorical strategy, and so it is often posed even when it is unwarranted, which is where fallacious dilemma arguments come from. This post is about that fallacious case, and the following infographic will help:

Gladstone in a political dilemma
[HT, Wikipedia]

Here, we see how policy proposal or argued position P is presented with a dilemma, Q XOR R — two exclusive, allegedly exhaustive options, but where each leads to an unpalatable or unacceptable outcome, X’ or X”. The so trapped party is then invited to retreat (or in some cases to pick the lesser evil, say X’).

This form of argument is closely related to the very respectable argument form, reduction to absurdity, where one fork being absurd, one takes the other as truth given P.

HT, ZW, two classic cases from the gospels may help to clarify how powerful and even dangerous a dilemma can be. A woman is thrown down before Jesus as he teaches in the Temple: adulteress caught in the act. Moses said stone such, what do you say? Similarly, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? Each of these was a yes/no — and yes such are often used by wicked interrogators insisting on short answers they can readily twist — Stone her, you are a rebel against Rome, do not stone her you are a heretic against Moses (and we will lynch you). Do not pay and Rome will crucify you as a rebel, pay and you are a traitor to Israel. Both times, Jesus took the third option.

So, how does one deal with a dilemma?

  • It might be that indeed, one must retreat from P (though, most of the time that is not likely)
  • Sometimes, the forced alternative is not valid and a third way, S, can be taken that leads to a good result or a less worse one than P or Q. A classic case is the Euthyphro argument on roots of morality and the theistic answer that God is the root of reality who is inherently good and utterly wise, where also the good and right are sufficiently intelligible that we are not forced to act blindly
  • In a high form of the art of rhetoric, some pose a counter-dilemma that gives an even worse choice to the other party, substituting Q’ and R’ for Q and R, to force the other party to retreat.

In any case, a dilemma is not easy to deal with at all.

There is another related case that comes up on policy matters. The business as usual trend in a community reflects the balance of its power factions and sometimes is on a road to disaster. The run up to the two World Wars is a classic pair of cases. The issue then becomes finding a credible alternative and building a critical mass coalition to switch to it before it is too late.

If that fails, preach the good word but spend your 120 years building an ark. END

9 Replies to “L&FP, 51: The fallacy of the false dilemma

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    L&FP, 51: The fallacy of the false dilemma

  2. 2
    zweston says:

    could you give a practical example?

    I’d love to understand this more!

    Your content is so dense I can’t even engage with it a lot of times. 🙁 Likely I am the “dense” one. 🙂 I like what RC Sproul said though… you don’t really know something until you can communicate the truth of it to a 6 year old. I know I’m still working on that, particularly when talking theology. Grace and Peace to you, KF. I appreciate you.

  3. 3
    kairosfocus says:

    ZW, as noted above, the Euthyphro dilemma is a classic argument, is good just arbitrary rulings by God/gods or is it independent of God/gods, in essence. If arbitrary, God could declare murder is good. If independent of God who needs such a weak God? The option S is in the OP: God is inherently good and utterly wise, also goodness is in key part intelligible. Currently, the live case is “[Q] endless train of high risk, high adverse event non sterilising vaxxes vs [R] you’re an anti vaxxer conspiracy theorist” but there is a suppressed option, [S] effective treatments on the table since 1 1/2+ years now, with Uttar Pradesh India as a population level case in point. That’s not “flimsy evidence,” though it is suppressed. KF

    PS: Try, this woman was caught in adultery, Moses said stone, what do you say. Or, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, as cases we all met in Sunday School. Former one, if yes stone you are a rebel against Rome, if no, you are a heretic against Moses, Jesus broke through that one neatly, let him without guilt throw the first stone. In the second, no Caesar usurped power over Israel and you are a rebel against Rome, yes pay taxes and you are a traitor to Israel. The breakthrough was, bring me a coin. And yes, Jesus’ life was on the line with each of those challenges, that was how dangerous the argument can get.

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:

    PPS, I have added two familiar cases and a cartoon to the OP.

  5. 5
    zweston says:

    Thank you! Helpful!

  6. 6
    kairosfocus says:

    ZW, how do you think Jesus figured out how to reply to the two deadly dilemmas he faced? KF

  7. 7
    zweston says:

    Great question. 1. He’s God, so he knew some stuff 🙂 . 2. If he were human, he could just sort out all the claims and show that neither conclusion had to follow as there was an alternative action. He didn’t let a knee-jerk emotional charge bind his thinking.

    How would you answer it?

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    kairosfocus says:

    ZW, it is clear there is a contrast between OT rhetoric and the NT, it is obvious there was strong Greek influence that led leading Israelites to argue in different, more sophisticated ways. It is no accident that questions were posed leading to dilemmas. Now, Nazareth was 5 miles from Sepphoris, a Greek town and centre of public building projects. Joseph and sons likely worked there. Jesus also used other Greek related ideas and even quotes — kick against the goads — so he had familiarity with the rhetorical word games. In these Y/N dilemmas, he spotted that there was a begging of a question and a malicious intent so one had to break the hidden premises. Israel was under judgement of consequences . . . one side of a civil conflict in the 60’s BC invited the Romans in and of course they never left. So, he trusted that God is in charge of civil authorities as in the Babylonian captivity [think of Nebuchadnezzar’s episode of insanity], so even oppressive pagans have a certain legitimacy. He therefore highlighted the overall sovereignty of God, with Caesar as God’s servant charged to do good and uphold justice — cf Rom 13:1 – 7 — but accountable to God. As for the woman, there was blatant hypocrisy, where was the man. He perhaps wrote the verse in the dust, BOTH should have been before him, and he may well have listed some secret sins without names; writing was a way to speak to the leaders esp if he used classical Hebrew not Aramaic as from Ezra’s day on there were differences. Then, was David stoned for his adultery? But, it led to civil war. Here, he took the high road, the issue was reconciliation of sinners with God not putting to death. So, hypocrisy exposed, he moved to the higher ground of reconciliation and transformation. I draw from this we need discernment and to make a strategic not just a tactical rebuttal. Of course those playing the dilemma game hope to catch us by surprise and presume to be more clever. KF

  9. 9
    zweston says:

    appreciate the response. 🙂 Very thoughtful.

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