What is Damning the Alternatives?

In cases where there is a fixed and known set of alternatives, it is legitimate to establish the superiority of one by showing all of the others to be inferior. However, in cases where the alternatives are not fixed or known, and where absolutes rather than comparatives are sought, it is a fallacy to suppose that we argue for one by denigrating the alternatives. The fallacy is that of damning the alternatives.


Hawkins’ theory has to be the right answer. All the others have been proved hopelessly wrong.

(And his may be proved wrong tomorrow.)


Even where there are only two alternatives, we cannot show that one is good by showing that the other one is not. Both might be equally bad. The same applies for larger groups.


Chelsea is a really great team. Look at Liverpool and Manchester United; they are both useless.

(Other teams not taken account of might enter the reckoning. Even so, if Liverpool and Manchester United were bad, it would not prove Chelsea good. It might be that all football teams are absolutely terrible.)


The fallacy occurs because in leaving out the performance of alternatives not referred to, we exclude material which might be relevant to a decision. Second, by introducing material which denigrates others in cases where a simple judgement is required, we bring in irrelevant matter.

Damning the alternatives is the fallacy of the partisan. Anxious to elevate his own village, nation, team, church, occupation, race or class, he thinks he does so by running down the others. Rupert Brooke used the fallacy for humorous effect in his famous poem, ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’. Amongst the praise for Grantchester itself are sandwiched adverse comments on the other villages in the area. He tells us:


For Cambridge people rarely smile,
Being urban, squat and packed with guile…
Strong men have run for miles and miles
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles…
Strong men have blanched and shot their wives
Rather than send them to St Ives.

Rupert Brooke, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, in Brooke, Collected Poems (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1918)


In British elections it is considered bad form for a candidate to promote his own cause by castigating his opponents; he lets his election agent do it instead. In the USA there is no such compunction:


You takes your choice: a convicted rapist, an adulterer, a practising pervert, an embezzler and me.

(The candidates tend to be more exotic in the USA; this might explain it.)


The fallacy will give you hours of innocent fun (and a fair amount of guilty fun) in running down the alternatives to what you are proposing. We appear to have a kind of double vision which leaves us short-sighted on virtue but hawk-eyed for faults. To you this is but opportunity. When you pick on a couple of alternatives and expose their imperfections, the audience will be turning those defective eyes away from your own proposal. They will assume that you would not run down everything else as mean, foolish, wrong and wicked if your own ideas were no better. They will be mistaken.


No design for a new building ever meets with universal approval, but look at the alternatives: a glass-fronted matchbox, something with all the pipes on the outside, or a moulded concrete monstrosity.

(Whereas the one you approve of lets in water, sheds tiles on passersby and needs a king’s ransom to maintain. But they won’t see that if you keep them focused on the damned alternatives.)


The above article is from the book How To Win Every Argument by Madsen Pirie. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand formal logic and logical fallacies. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!