Philosophy is for Everyone

How the Either-Or Fallacy Confuses Our Thinking

This post is about the Either-Or fallacy.

A fallacy is a type of common faulty argument. And it’s important to be aware of common logical  fallacies because arguments containing such fallacies often sound very convincing. However, they contain poor logic, and so they confuse and muddle our thinking.

Regarding the Either-Or Fallacy specifically, when someone commits this fallacy, they present two choices as though they are the only two choices in the matter, when in fact there are three or more possible choices.

And furthermore, a person committing the Either-Or fallacy usually presents one choice as the clearly desirable choice and the other choice as clearly undesirable.

In doing so, people who commit the Either-Or Fallacy essentially stack the deck in an argument in their favor. That’s because they present only two possible choices and only one of those choices is, in fact, legitimate.

Here are several examples of statements that likely[1] commit the Either-Or Fallacy:

“We have to clean the room this way or it will be a disaster.”

“Either vote for Candidate Taylor, or this country will self-destruct.”

“Politics”, by Robert Robinson. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“You’re either with me or against me.”

“I either pass this test or my entire future is down the toilet.”

In examining these statements, it’s important to note that sometimes there are, in fact, only two choices in a situation.

Here is one example of a situation in which there are, in fact, only two choices. Imagine two parents standing on the sidewalk with their toddler, and a car is approaching. The toddler, not understanding the potential danger of the oncoming car, tries to break free from their parents to run out into the street. We will call this the Toddler Scenario.

In the Toddler Scenario, the father grabs the child’s hand and yells, “You need to stay with us, or you’ll get hurt!” The father in this scenario presents two choices as the only choices.

However, in this case, there are in fact only two choices. The child must stay with her parents, or she will in fact suffer harm. In addition, the only desirable choice is that toddler stay with her parents so she doesn’t suffer harm.

So, even though the father in this example presents only two choices, this scenario is not an example of the Either-Or Fallacy.

Here is another example of a statement that initially seems to contain the Either-Or Fallacy but does not. Consider someone who says, “Either you respect[2] the law of gravity, or you will suffer dire consequences.”

We’ll call this the Gravity Scenario.

“Solar System”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Once again, like the Toddler Scenario above, the person in the Gravity Scenario presents only two choices. And only one of those choices is desirable. So, their statement appears, on the fact of it, to commit the Either-Or Fallacy.

However, the two choices in the Gravity Scenario are, in fact, the only choices. That is, if we don’t respect the law of gravity, life will quickly become painful.

So, the Gravity Scenario, like the Toddler Scenario, is not an example of the Either-Or Fallacy.

The point is that these examples show situations in which there are, in fact, only two choices in a situation.

On the other hand, quite frequently, the are more than two options in situations involving choices. In fact, most of the time, there are three, four, or many choices in a situation.

For example, let’s imagine a situation, we will call it the Tidy Roommate Scenario, in which roommates disagree about how tidy they should keep their room or the way they should clean it.

“Female student sitting on dorm room bed at Arlington State College”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Imagine that the tidier roommate gets upset and tells her roommate “Either we clean the room my way, or our room will be a disaster.”

Of course, while the Tidy Roommate might prefer to clean the room a certain way, there is certainly more than one way to clean a room. And should we choose one of these other ways, disaster will not ensue.

So this situation is an example of the Either-Or Fallacy.

Or consider another scenario we will call the Candidate Scenario. Let’s say a man named Tom has strong feelings about politics and prefers a certain candidate, Candidate X, in an upcoming election. In a conversation with a friend, Tom says, “Well, you either vote for Candidate X or the country will self-destruct.”

Destruction of Longwy France, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Now, it is possible that in some rare cases the only two choices in the matter are in fact voting for a certain candidate or facing the destruction of a country. But this is rarely the case. Furthermore, thinking that these are the only two choices usually shuts down our reasoning  and our ability to imagine new possibilities or to think wisely and creatively about a situation.

And this brings us to the reason why paying attention to the Either-Or Fallacy (and other fallacies like it) is so important.

One of the best ways to live confidently and joyfully is to improve our thinking.

After all, if we consistently think confused, muddled ideas, or we act on the basis of poorly-supported arguments, we suffer. It makes it difficult to live a confident, effective, and happy life. And such confused thinking also makes it difficult to think for ourselves effectively.

Let me give you two examples from my own life that pertain specifically to the Either-Or Fallacy.

When I was a teenager, I would get really stressed out about upcoming tests, even though I studied hard and was generally a strong student. In retrospect, I realize that a lot of stress came from making fallacious Either-Or arguments to myself that went something like this: “Either I get an A on this test, or I will flunk out of school.”

Of course, these were not the only two choices in my testing scenario. For example, if I scored lower than an A on a test, here are several completely reasonable things that could happen:

I could realize that I would not flunk out of school simply because I earned one grade lower than an A.

Or I could realize that I am a human being, that making mistakes is okay, and that I can learn from mistakes.

I could realize that there is more to life than earning straight As in school.

Picture by MChe Lee, courtesy of Unsplash.

Or I could realize that other people have earned grades lower than A on tests and have still gone on to be successful people.

I could learn that life contains instances in which we achieve the goals we desire exactly as we desire them. And it also contains instances in which we don’t achieve the goals we desire. And, although the second kind of instance is painful, they are not the end of the world.

However, because I presented myself with only two choices as I was about to take a test—get an A or flunk out–it filled me with anxiety and dread.

Had I been able to recognize and avoid the Either-Or Fallacy in my thinking, I could have taken a much more realistic and peaceful approach to tests. (By the way, I learned to do this later in life, and it helped me survive graduate school.)

As another example, like a lot of people, I have experienced social pressure at various times in my life in which people I was around implied or directly stated, “Do what we do, or you are not an acceptable person.”  And of course, these people were behaving inappropriately.

The good news is that in these situations, I recognized that there were choices other than 1) behaving in a certain way; Or 2) being an unacceptable person.

I realized I could follow my own path and live a good, meaningful life.

Picture by Mario Dobelmann, courtesy of Unsplash.

The point is that when we fall into the trap of the Either-Or fallacy, we suffer.

That is because when we fall into this trap, we often experience negative consequences like anxiety, muddled thinking, and pressure to behave in ways that go against our conscience.

We also limit our ability to be curious and think creatively. (After all, it’s hard to be curious and creative when there are only two choices on the table and only one of the choices is truly desirable.)

However, the more we detect the Either-Or Fallacy in our thinking, as well as in the arguments other people pressure us to believe, the more we free ourselves from unnecessary restrictions.

And the more we kindle our curiosity and imagination, clarify our thinking, and open ourselves to other options.

You might also like reading this posts:

Why Thinking Well is Worth It

Ad Hominem: Argument Pitfall #1

For further reading, you might be interested in these three books I have written (or co-written) to help people think for themselves and avoid fallacies:

You can find these books at Classical Academic Press here.

And you can also order them from Amazon:

Everyday Debate (I recommend starting with this one.)

The Argument Builder

The Discovery of Deduction


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[1] I say likely because these statements could occur in a wide variety of contexts. And in some contexts there may, indeed, only be two choices. In other contexts, there may be more than two choices, in which case these statements would contain the Either-Or Fallacy.

[2] This example is, in part, inspired by some para-gliders who regularly glide near my house. In their case, if they don’t respect the law of gravity in their sport, they will indeed suffer dire consequences.

2 thoughts on “How the Either-Or Fallacy Confuses Our Thinking”

  1. I think one of the strangest scenarios is when an either/or statement is made and neither option seems logical to me at all and I can think of two or three more far more reasonable statements that have at least some logical foundation to them. I see this often in tv news reporting. I wish I could think of an example to illustrate this, but their either/or is so patently ridiculous I never can remember them afterwards, no matter how annoyed I am in the moment.

    1. I totally know what you mean, Vicky! Perhaps an example of this would be the old saying, “Life is tough, and then you die” or something like that. I hear people say things like this and I think, “You are presenting two options that are extreme and undesirable. And there are more options than this.”

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