Politics and False Dilemmas


Excerpts from Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice

Fallacies of oversimplification often appear in the form of a false dilemma. This fallacy occurs when someone attempts to force a choice between two options even though other options may exist. This oversimplifies the truth by pretending that the two options presented are the only options available.

When I was in college I was obliged to take a personality test during one of my classes. I objected that the multiple choices available on many of the questions were not clear or exhaustive enough for me to answer honestly. The teacher asserted that this was a purposeful feature of the test: to force a choice in order to determine allegedly important distinctions. She then tried to illustrate her point of a “forced choice” by holding out a pencil within my close reach, equally between my right hand and left. “Here,” she said. I looked at her. She added, “I am forcing you to choose either your left hand or your right.”

I smiled at the otherwise smart and gifted instructor, and explained her error. “Those are not the only options. I can choose not to take the pencil from you at all. I can get up and leave, I can sit and stare at you. I can do a hundred things besides take it with either my right or left hand.” The problem with such personality tests are often the same: they present simplistic choices of behavior for scenarios in which many other behaviors are possible.

This type of problem will result in most cases where choices are artificially limited, especially when they are limited to two. When choices are minimized to two then the potential for fallacy is at its highest. Thus the name “dilemma” which means “two propositions.” A false dilemma is a false claim (false witness!, Ex. 20:16) that only two choices exist. The fallacy is also known as false dichotomy (meaning “false cutting” or “false division”), as the either/or fallacy, or as bifurcation, meaning “two prongs” or “two forks.”

False dilemmas occur very frequently in the public forum, especially in politics where debaters hope to move agendas by applying pressure. Claims such as, “Those who don’t support government welfare programs obviously don’t care about the poor,” are essentially saying “Either you support government welfare or you don’t care about the poor,” and can be exposed very simply by understanding false dilemmas. A third option is that those opposed to government welfare programs care as much or even more about the poor their detractors, but they know that private charities can treat poverty more effectively than government programs. Those who continue to employ the false dilemma ignore or suppress this third option, and thus continue to paint their opposition as uncaring and unconcerned about the poor. This is not only fallacious, it is dishonest and slanderous; but its proponents find it convenient for furthering their agenda.

A clear example of a false dilemma comes from the liberal activist Jim Wallis. He writes,

We believe that poverty—caring for the poor and vulnerable—is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ budget and tax policies reward the rich or show compassion for poor families? Do their foreign policies include fair trade and debt cancellation for the poorest countries?”[1]

Wallis often uses Biblical language to promote the agenda of political liberals. His book God’s Politics provides many examples of this type of thinking. The false dilemma in this passage should be obvious to the reader. He presents two scenarios by which to judge whether the political candidates are “caring for the poor” or not: do their budgets and tax policies “reward the rich, or show compassion.” Wallis therefore implies that tax cuts for wealthier families somehow violate the Christian ideas of “caring” and “compassion.” But is this the only way of looking at it? The proper response to Wallis will note the fact that it is possible both to “reward” the rich and have compassion for the poor. A more helpful way to say this is that the Bible requires us to favor neither the rich nor the poor (Lev. 19:15), and to prosecute thieves even if they steal because of their poverty (Prov. 6:30–31).

Biblical fairness means having one law that applies to all people equally, favoring neither the rich nor the poor, and therefore it is improper to set the two against each other in the way that Wallis does. Wallis, for example, might object to a certain tax break for middle and upper-middle class families if the legislation does not also call for similar tax breaks for the lower income brackets (and he has done so), and he will object upon the principle quoted above. But if he does not relate that such tax breaks on “the wealthy” merely reverse the increases levied by previous administrations, and which increases were not shared by those in lower brackets, then Wallis is also suppressing vital information and not putting the argument into its proper historical context. Tax policies that “reward the rich” in Wallis’ eyes may actually be a case of Biblical justice in returning the levels of taxation more closely to equal percentages for the rich and the poor (although, the wealthier classes still pay much higher percentages than the lower income classes, and the wealthy still pay by far the largest amount of the tax burden over all).[2]

When this type of fallacious logic enters public debates—such as the current ones over health care, “torture,” war, Second-Amendment rights, and social security—then whole nations can be deceived and motivated by delusions. In such as case, we risk building a society on lies. And a society built on lies will invite judgment. For there are some “either-or” statements that are not fallacious, like this one: “Either we remain faithful to God, or we will bear the consequences.


Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), xxiii.
[2] “The top 1 percent of income earners pay more than one in every three dollars the IRS collects in taxes. From 1986 to 2004, the total share of the income tax burden paid by the top 1 percent of earners grew from 25.8 percent to 36.9 percent, while the total share of the tax burden paid by the bottom half of earners fell from 6.5 percent to only 3.3 percent” (“Did the Bush Tax Cuts Favor the Wealthy?” National Center for Policy Analysis Report, January 21, 2008, accessed August 27, 2008. Also the report from the House of Representatives Joint Economic Committee, “Top One Percent of Tax Filers Pay Highest Share in Decades,” accessed August 27, 2008.
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