The power of false dilemmas

Whether we use the term or not, most of us know the concept of false dilemmas. Should we carpet bomb ISIS or take zero action? These are obviously not the only options. Most of us know that—and thus know better than to choose between them, lest the questioner control our thinking.

And yet, there are reasons that people pose false dilemmas, some more ethical than others. So I submit that we should at least consider some situations where it might help to pose them ourselves. Used ethically and appropriately, false dilemmas can help make some of our most difficult personal and professional situations more negotiable.

Which ones? Consider the following three:

  1. When a decision-maker won’t focus. How many decisions don’t get made simply because the decision-maker gets distracted? I’m certainly talking about kids, who can’t be bothered to choose a shirt before building a spaceship out of all the couch cushions. But I’m also talking about executives, who have so many important decisions to make that many don’t get made at all. Sometimes posing a false dilemma—the blue shirt or the red shirt, the quark strategy or the lepton strategy—can simplify the decision just enough to attract their attention.
  2. When a decision-maker will focus but won’t decide. Sometimes the problem is not attention but indecision. The decision-maker is focused but still can’t decide: how to choose among the 342 shirts in the closet? Or the 50 states where we might pilot our leptons? Sometimes a false dilemma can cut through the indecision, convincing them to act instead of worrying about the risks of a failed decision. Having done research indicating that New York or California are the best places to pilot the leptons, for example, you might tell the decision-maker as much and ask for a preference.
  3. When any other options are unacceptable. Sometimes you feel so strongly about a decision that any other options just won’t work. Little Charlie, do you want to go to a private university or a public university after high school? Though the dilemma may seem false to them, set as they are on working at McDonalds, it’s not false at all to you. In that case, posing the choice as a dilemma can help to persuade them.

So false dilemmas can in fact be useful. But the word “false” should immediately call our attention to their ethical implications (even today, the Monday after the spring time change, when many people are so sleepy as to worry less about moral issues). By suggesting that two choices represent the entire decision set, we are inevitably attempting to control their decision. And this is probably the most popular reason for posing false dilemmas: to attain self-interested objectives by curtailing another person’s autonomy. Just my opinion, but that motivation seems ethically suspect.

Indeed, false dilemmas are probably only justifiable when the costs to the decider are trivial (it doesn’t really matter which shirt they wear) or the benefits to the decider are substantial (you know that New York and California are the best pilot sites; you just need to get approval).

An ethically-fraught strategy, then, but one to consider in the face of the difficult dilemmas that surround us—even or especially on “sleepy Monday.”

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