It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these Logic 101 posts. Just as a refresher, I like to look at a topic from the point of view of logic 101. That is, I try to see where the basic errors in reasoning occur. My theory is that if everyone took an intro to logic course, these arguments would be more productive and far less annoying. I could write something longer than the Mahabharata, Ramayana and War & Peace combined when it comes to the errors in reasoning you’ll find in politics. Some of the obvious ones are ad hominems, slippery slopes, appeals to tradition, appeals to authority, the naturalistic fallacy, appeals to nature, and straw men. Oh, and hasty generalizations, the genetic fallacy and begging the question. Like I said, I could write a very, very, very long book on the topic. So, today I’ll just focus on one that I find particularly troubling, the false dilemma. A false dilemma is when an argument is presented as if it only has two possible solutions when, in fact, it has at least three. There are two basic causes of a false dilemma. One is honest, where the speaker simply cannot see the other possibilities. The other is a dishonest rhetorical device where the speaker wants to strengthen one position by juxtaposing it against a silly or abhorrent position.
The false dilemma is, I think, a big part of the reason that so many people feel like there is no place for them in politics. The abortion debate is a perfect example. The way things are presented, you are either pro life or pro choice. If you are pro life, you believe that life begins at conception and it is wrong to kill, therefore it is wrong to have an abortion. If you are pro choice, you believe that a woman is free to do with her own person as she sees fit. The problem is that many, if not most, people don’t fit happily into either of those descriptions. It is entirely possible to believe that life starts at conception and still be pro choice. A standard utilitarian approach does not fall into either camp. A strict utilitarian calculus would show that some women who want an abortion should not get one, but other women would be justified. And it might even show that some people who want to have the baby should have an abortion. My point here is not to settle the issue. But, until we start having realistic discussions that address the possibility that there are more than two positions, we will never make any progress.
Foreign relations is another area where the false dilemma is constantly used. The only possibilities presented in any conflict are with us or against us. It creates all kinds of problems when the whole world is divided into allies and enemies. It forces us to care about things that have nothing to do with us and that can lead to unnecessary and illegal interventions. It can makes us support horrible leaders like Netanyahu just because Israel is an ally and Iran is an enemy. Realistically, other countries must do some things without even considering the US. We should let those countries be neutral. We should also understand that even friends can do bad things, like Israel’s illegal expansion, and adversaries can do nice things, like the Russians providing shuttle service to space for American astronauts. I’d like to think that the state department realizes that it is not a black and white world, but until the electorate is clued in, how can they make informed decisions?
Surprisingly, I don’t really blame the politicians for the rampant use of false dilemmas. Of course, I would prefer that they be up front and honest, but even though it is an informal fallacy, the false dilemma is a powerful rhetorical tool. Given how cutthroat politics is, it is only natural that the politicians use it. I put the blame on the press. When you get right down to it, there is no profession as consistently bad at its job as the news media. One of the key parts of the media’s job is to report the lies and misinformation that politicians spew. This should include false dilemmas. Progress is impossible when only two of many possibilities are considered.