Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Reflections on the Either-Or Fallacy


One of the fallacies that plague America is the either-or fallacy (also called "black and white" or bifurcation." If one does not support A, he must support B. You can plug in any number of opposed concepts. Conservative:Liberal, Capitalism:Socialism and others are viewed as opposites and the only two choices to make.

I've noticed that this fallacy shows up a lot in a tendency to assume that A and B are truly contradictory and one must be endorsed. It is presumed that if a person speaks against a thing, he must endorse the other.

However, it is quite possible that both can be false. For example, if someone said "either Nazism or Stalinism" one could legitimately speak against one as immediately relevant to the situation without automatically endorsing the other.

It is also possible to support something that is similar to a plank in a party platform without endorsing the party or its platform.

Ultimately the problem is to pigeonhole a statement into one of a limited number of factions and assume the speaker endorses the faction with all the assorted baggage.

Absolutes vs. Multiple Options

Before moving on, we need to distinguish something. Not all either-or situations are fallacies. Some things truly either are or are not true. If A is true, it cannot be not true in the same way and same time

Thus, if Catholicism is the Church established by Christ, it can't be said it is not the Church established by Christ. Or, if rape is always evil, it can never be said to be not evil.

That's simple reason. It can't be raining and not raining in the same place and time. I can't, at the same time, have and not have a hundred dollar bill in my hand.

Contradictory vs. Contrary

So, if two statements contradict, they can't both be true, but one must be true. (A vs. Not-A). However, we need to realize that we can have opposed statements where both are false. For example, saying "either rain or snow tomorrow," prevents it from being both, but the statement overlooks the option of clear weather.

So when getting to the truth, we must be clear on whether opposing statements contradict or are merely contrary.

Statements by the Church and Interpretation

The Church gets constantly attacked by people who use this fallacy. If the bishops speak in favor of immigration reform, the Church is portrayed as being opposed to any restrictions at all. If the Church speaks on the evil of abortion, she is accused of being anti-woman.

When Pope Francis says of the Church, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible," that does not mean the Church can never speak on these issues... as many inside the Church and out took it to mean. (In fact, the Holy Father went on to say, "But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.")

The problem was faulty reasoning, not the Pope's words. His statement was reduced to an either-or statement: either the Church speaks on this subject or does not... as an absolute statement. Instead, he intended to express a view on this topic that he won't solely speak on these issues, but when he does, it must have a frame of reference in mind.


Ultimately, our obligation is to determine whether our interpretation is correct before we try to draw conclusions from what was said. If we use faulty assumptions, our conclusions will not be reasoned ones.

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