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What Is an Either-Or Fallacy?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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An either-or fallacy is a type of fallacy in which a person makes a statement that presents only two possible options, when there are actually more than those two. This type of fallacy is often made by someone attempting to persuade someone else into believing that only two options exist. Someone arguing that this type of fallacy is being used must be able to demonstrate that at least one more relevant and meaningful choice is available. An either-or fallacy is not always committed when someone presents an “either-or” statement, as some situations legitimately have only two possibilities.

Also referred to as a “false dilemma,” an either-or fallacy occurs when someone incorrectly presents only two possible options as the only ones. This occurs either accidentally or purposefully, when someone making an argument confuses contradictory and contrary propositions. A contradictory proposition is a statement of two conditions in which only one of the two conditions must be true, such as “he is breathing or he is not breathing.” In contrast to this, a contrary proposition is a statement in which at most one of the two conditions is true, but it is also possible that neither is true, such as “today is Monday or today is Tuesday.” This is contrary since there are five other days that it could be.

When someone presents a contrary proposition as a contradictory one, then an either-or fallacy occurs as the person creates a situation in which only two possibilities seem to exist in mutual exclusivity. The statement “You are part of the solution or you are part of the problem” can be seen as an either-or fallacy. This statement completely ignores other possibilities, specifically that someone may be neither part of a given problem nor is contributing to the solution of that problem. Many non-smokers, for example, are not contributing to issues with smoking in public places, but are also not actively attempting to prohibit such behavior.

Anytime someone states that an argument is presenting an either-or fallacy, the burden of proof is on him or her to prove this statement. Such proof can be provided by demonstrating that at least one more option exists that is relevant and meaningful. Someone saying that “the team either won or they lost” could be committing an either-or fallacy if someone else can prove that the game may have ended in a tie score with neither a winner nor a loser. It is important for anyone considering logical arguments and fallacies to keep in mind that some either-or statements are valid, including binary systems in which something is either on or off, such as a light switch.

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Discussion Comments
By AnswerMan — On Feb 21, 2014

@Phaedrus, I don't think you have to go as far as war to see the either-or fallacy in action. People do it every day in one form or another. When there are two possible outcomes to a decision, one is usually positive and the other one negative. Either we'll make the right decision and earn a reward, or we'll make the wrong decision and suffer the consequences. When people are only presented with two choices, they are almost certain to choose the one with the greatest benefit or the least amount of damage.

In the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", the narrator discusses being on the horns of a dilemma. If a person encounters an angry bull, he may believe he only has two options: move to the left or move to the right. Either way, he's going to be gored by the bull. However, the person still has two other options available. One is to throw sand in the bull's eyes, rendering him helpless. The other option is not to get into the arena in the first place.

By Phaedrus — On Feb 20, 2014

I think the either-or fallacy has backfired many times in human history, particularly when trying to justify a conflict or war. The Vietnam war, for example, was presented as an either/or situation to the American people. Either we stop the Communists from taking over one small country after another, or we just allow it to happen. There was no other option presented. The same thing happened in Afghanistan after 9/11. Either we pursue Osama Bin Laden at his last known location or we allow him to escape and regroup. Again, no other options were considered workable.

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