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.