KSU   -   English 1101/55 & 57   -   Mr. Hagin   -   Fall 2002   -   Revised: 27 November 2002


Either/Or – a claim that presents an artificially limited range of choices.

An either/or fallacy occurs when a speaker makes a claim (usually a premise in an otherwise valid deductive argument) that presents an artificial range of choices.  For instance, he may suggest that there are only two choices possible, when three or more really exist.  Those who use an either/or fallacy try to force their audience to accept a conclusion by presenting only two possible options, one of which is clearly more desirable.


These tactics are purposefully designed to seduce those who are not well informed on a given topic.  A clever writer or speaker may use the either/or fallacy to make his idea look better when compared to an even worse one.  This type of selective contrast is also a form of stacking the deck.  This type of argument violates the principles of civil discourse: arguments should enlighten people, making them more knowledgeable and more capable of acting intelligently and independently.


A mother may tell her child: “Eat your broccoli or you won’t get desert.”

Children need this type of black and white structuring until they can learn to make valid choices.  These types of arguments become fallacious, however, when they reduce a complicated issue down to simple terms or when they deliberately obscure other alternatives.  Either/Or choices can also assume the form of scare tactics.  Sometimes, poorly-written multiple-choice tests contain these fallacies: sometimes the student can justify more than one correct choice, given different circumstances.


A firm believer states: “I'm not pro-choice; I'm pro-life.”

Politicians have wrapped this issue up into a messy ball of catch phrases.  They assume that a person must have a definitive stand on the abortion issue across the board – either for it or against it.  Using these terms, however, make this either/or fallacy especially comical.  Who is not technically pro-“life”?  We are all still here on this planet – living, eating, socializing, etc. – living life.  We like life; we fully support it.  On the other hand, we are all Americans whose speech is protected by the First Amendment that grants us freedom of intellectual choice.  Therefore, aren’t we all technically pro-“choice” too?

We can play these word games for hours, but these terms cannot adequately help us arrive at a conclusion on this issue if they obscure the realities.  Wouldn’t some anti-abortion advocates be in favor of aborting a fetus in order to save the life of the mother?  So are they pro-“life” or “choice” if they sacrifice one of them instead of both?  … or neither?  Do you see how this gets us nowhere?  The pro choice/life debate has been “dumbed down” to these two equivocated, loaded, slanted, and distorted terms that only get people mad.  Life, death, and abortion are much too complicated to be understood on a bumper sticker.


Be aware: the either/or assertion does not express a pair of contradictory alternatives; rather, they offer a pair of contrary alternatives (mere contraries do not exhaust the possibilities).  Light and dark, for example, are contraries because they represent opposite qualities that are necessary in one in order to define the other.  Yet there are several in-between states of light in our earth: dusk, twilight, eclipses, etc.


An ignorant friend might say: “I’m not a doctor, but your runny nose and cough tell me that you either have a cold or the flu.”

Well, the only truth about the above statement is that the speaker is not a doctor.  Although most people with these symptoms really do have the common cold or a touch of the flu, these options are not the only two available.  Allergies, bronchitis, or thousands of more serious diseases could all display these two common symptoms.  See your doctor for a diagnosis without relying on overgeneralizations or either/or fallacies.


President George W. Bush: “You're either with us or against us.”

These types of arguments falls because the audience is not given a fair choice – there exist many alternate (and often more desirable) choices that are never offered to the listener for consideration.  Isn’t Switzerland a neutral country?  (Yes.)  So, are they “for” or “against” the United States?  Do you love every part of your best friend’s personality?  Does that mean that you too are “for” or “against” this person?


If you claim that an argument involves false dilemma, however, the burden of proof is on you to show why the dilemma is false: be prepared to identify at least one additional, relevant option which is omitted that creates a false dilemma.

NOTE: Not every either/or choice is fallacious — there may be only two reasonable alternatives.  Many lights, for example, are wired so that they must exist in one of two states: on or off; likewise, a woman either is or is not pregnant, etc.