What if you heard a person claim “The death penalty is needed for rape, because otherwise you let those people out and they’ll move in next door to you and you’ll never know it, and then they can rape again”? What is wrong with this point?
Many readers will immediately say “Nothing.” And that’s because they think I’m in effect asking if they’re pro-rape or anti-rape, and quite naturally they’re anti-rape. Or it’s because they think I’m asking if they’re for or against the death penalty for rape, and they, like many people, are in favor of it.
But in logic, that isn’t what we mean by a question like that. We aren’t asking what “side” you’re on, whether you “like” what the speaker is saying. We’re asking for an analysis of the argument used by the speaker.
Let’s look at the argument the speaker seems to have in mind:
* Premise: Rapists can either be executed, or they can be let free to live anonymously where they’ll easily be able to rape again.
* Conclusion: Rapists should be executed.
And so the question is not, Do you agree with the conclusion?, it’s Does this conclusion follow from this premise?
And the answer is no. The speaker is committing a fallacy called a false dilemma.
The term false dilemma refers to a case where a person presents only two possibilities when in fact there are more, then states or implies that one is unacceptable, and so concludes that the other (the one he favors) must be chosen, by the process of elimination.
Or to put it schematically:
* Premise: x and y are the only options
* Premise: x is worse than y
* Conclusion: y should be chosen
What makes a false dilemma a fallacy is when in narrowing the field to two options, other possibilities are ignored. Often the person committing the fallacy purposely uses a particularly weak or unpopular alternative in order to make her preferred choice look all the better in comparison. (Some instances of this fit the fallacy category straw man at least as well as false dilemma.)
So how does this apply to the opening example of the death penalty for rapists?
The speaker has implied that there are only two possibilities:
1. Execute rapists.
2. Let rapists free to live amongst unsuspecting folks where they can rape again.
But in fact there are many, many more options that have been used, considered, studied, argued about, etc. A partial list would include:
3. Incarcerate rapists for long periods of time, even life without parole.
4. Incarcerate rapists for less than the rest of their lives, but after release monitor them closely and strictly through the parole system, require them to register as sex offenders with notification to potential employers, neighbors, etc.
5. Physically alter rapists through some chemical or other castration so that they become physically unable to rape.
6. Psychologically alter rapists (education? therapy? torture? rehabilitation? electric shock treatment?) so they will not choose to rape in the future.
7. Don’t do any one single thing with all rapists, but decide on a case-by-case basis which of 1 through 6 (or others not listed here) is most appropriate.
Now it may be that #1 is the best choice, that even after fairly considering all options, it turns out that’s the one that is most justified. But if so, that would be a different, and non-fallacious, argument.
Which again highlights the fact that when we label something a fallacy, we are not claiming that the conclusion it’s arguing for is false. What it’s arguing for may well be true, but if so it’ll be for other reasons. In claiming something to be a fallacy, we are saying that the reasons offered fail to justify the conclusion.
If you want to determine the best criminal justice policy for rape, as a critical thinker you need to look at the pros and cons of all reasonable possibilities you can think of, not pick the one you’re already inclined to favor and contrast it with a single unappealing alternative.
The next question is, when is a false dilemma not a fallacy? (Or perhaps more accurately, when is a dilemma not a “false” dilemma?)
It’s not a fallacy (or at least not a false dilemma fallacy-there could always be other problems with it) when there are in fact only those two possibilities that need to be considered.
If the President has a bill on his desk waiting for his signature, and he can veto it or not, then if the best reasons favor one of those choices over the other, that settles it. Basing one’s argument on the comparative merits of just these two options would not be a fallacy, if in fact these are the only two available options.
If a football team has the ball deep in its opponent’s territory with time for only one play, trailing by 3, and a case can be made that it’s better to go for the field goal than the touchdown, then that’s not a false dilemma, because those are the only two options. (The only two options worthy of consideration, that is. Of course they could punt, walk off the field and forfeit, run all the way to the opposite end of the field and take a safety, etc., but it’s not a fallacy to ignore silly options in coming to a decision.)
In conclusion, when you hear someone arguing that you must support his position because the alternative is clearly worse, stop and think whether those are really the only two possibilities. (Or as a professor of mine once said, “Whenever somebody asks you if you want chocolate or vanilla, tell them ‘I’ll take strawberry.'”)