What is the Bogus Dilemma?

Quite apart from the casual use of the term to describe a difficult choice, the dilemma is also the name of an intricate argument. In a dilemma, we are told the consequences of alternative actions, and told that since we must take one of the actions, we must accept one of the consequences. A Creek mother told her son who was contemplating a career in politics:


Don’t do it. If you tell the truth men will hate you, and if you tell lies the gods will hate you. Since you must either tell the truth or tell lies, you must be hated either by men or by the gods.


The dilemma is a valid form of argument. If the consequences described are true, and if there really is a straight choice between them, then one or other of the consequences must follow. Very often, however, the information given is incorrect, and the choice is not as limited as is made out. In these cases the dilemma is bogus. The bogus dilemma is the fallacy of falsely or mistakenly presenting a dilemma where none exists.

In the above example, the son has several possible replies. He can claim that the dilemma is bogus by denying that the consequences follow – this is called ‘grasping the dilemma by the horns’. He can simply deny that men will hate him if he tells the truth: on the contrary, he might claim, they would respect him for it. The alternative statements about consequences are called the ‘conjuncts’, and it is enough to show that one or both is false to label the dilemma as bogus. As another option, he might show that the choice is false. This is called ‘going between the horns’, and consists of showing that other choices are possible. Instead of limiting himself to truth or lies, he might be truthful at some times, deceitful at others. He might make statements which contain elements of both truth and falsehood. The dilemma is shown to be bogus if the choice, which is called the ‘disjunct’, is not an exhaustive one. A third way of dealing with a dilemma is to rebut it. This is an elegant technique which requires an equally ferocious beast to be fabricated out of the same elements as the original one, but sent charging in the opposite direction to meet it head-on. In the above example, the youth replied:


I shall do it, mother. For if I tell lies, men will love me for it; and if I tell truth the gods will love me. Since I must tell truth or lies, I shall be beloved of men or gods.

(This is so pretty that when one sees it done in debate, there is an urge to throw money into the ring.)


Protagoras, who taught law among other things, dealt with a poor student by agreeing to waive the fee until the man had won his first case. As time went by, and there was no sign of the youth taking on a case, Protagoras sued him. The prosecution was simple:


If the court decides for me, it says he must pay. If it decides for him, he wins his first case and must therefore pay me. Since it must decide for me or for him, / must receive my money.


The youth had been a good student, however, and presented the following defence:


On the contrary. If the court decides for me, it says I need not pay. If it decides for Protagoras, then I still have not won my first case, and need not pay. Since it must decide for me or for him, either way I need not pay.

(The judge had a nervous breakdown and adjourned the case indefinitely. He thereby proved the disjuncts false, and escaped between the horns of both dilemmas.)


The fallacy in the bogus dilemma consists of presenting false consequences or a false choice, and it will be of most use to you in situations where decisions which you oppose are being contemplated. Quickly you step in, pointing out that one of two things will happen, and that bad results will follow either way:


If we allow this hostel for problem teenagers to be set up in our area, either it will be empty or it will be full. If it is empty it will be a useless waste of money; and if it is full it will bring in more trouble-makers than the area can cope with. Reluctantly, therefore…

(Cross your fingers and hope there are no students of Protagoras on the committee.)


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!