You are on page 1of 4

James Thomas Rhetoric Professor Schiappa 9/26/2012 Argument By Dilemma How many times have you heard something

like this But Mom, if you dont buy me an Xbox, all of my friends will be bored when they come over, and Ill end up friendless. Our hypothetical youth is presenting his mother with a false set of just two alternatives either purchase an Xbox, or doom her son socially. Of course, there are more than just these two alternatives the son could certainly entertain his friends without an Xbox, potentially by inviting them to play a sport, watch T.V., or much more. This is a classic example of argument by dilemma, in which a speaker presents his listeners with what he claims to be all of the choices that can be made in particular situation, oftentimes leaving out important choices or nuances for persuasive effect. Keep in mind that an argument by dilemma doesnt always need to be false or misleading in certain cases, distilling a complex situation down into a few alternatives can combat inertia and confusion and spur people to action. Today, I will present the two major forms of argument by dilemma and provide examples of each, and then finish with a description of ways to rebut this type of argument when it is used to mislead listeners. The first type of argument by dilemma is exactly like the one you just heard of the two or more choices presented to listeners, one is twisted to seem obviously desirable, while the others are likewise framed to seem totally undesirable. And, as in the example you just heard, some available choices may be left out entirely. The canonical example of this is the saying youre either with us or against us, employed famously by George W. Bush during the

War on Terror (p. 341). Imagine if you were a leader of another country. If you heard such words from the American president, you would be in a tight spot. You would by no means want to get on the bad side of the most powerful country in the world, but you might also believe your country unprepared to become an official ally of the U.S., maybe due to financial shortfalls or military weakness. You might ultimately decide that the disadvantages of sour relations with the U.S. would be too much to bear, and thus announce your full military and financial support for Americas War on Terror. You have thus been bullied into making exactly the choice that President Bush desired, temporarily blinded to the numerous other alternatives that Bush failed to mention, including the possibility of remaining a neutral nation much like Switzerland or providing a much smaller level of support. This, of course, is an example of argument by dilemma used in a logically unsound, selfish, and misleading fashion. Lest you think that all arguments by dilemma are like this, I will also provide an example of an appropriately used argument by dilemma. Imagine a situation where a team at a company is well behind on an important piece of software that is slated to be delivered to a big multinational, say IBM, in a week. The manager of the team might make a statement like, We need to double down on this project or well lose IBMs business. Sure, it might be possible for our hypothetical company to negotiate with IBM and extend the deadline, and IBM might not actually cancel all contracts with the company if the software is delivered late, so the manager has certainly simplified the situation a bit. But the general message of this argument by dilemma is valid the employees should probably hustle or significant consequences will result. Next, Id like to discuss the second type of argument by dilemma, the one in which the choices the speaker the presents are all undesirable (p. 333). A speaker would make such an

argument in order to indicate that a present discussion is completely fruitless, as all options being considered by the participants will lead to negative outcomes. Thus, the discussion needs to be restarted on completely different terms. This type of argument by dilemma is less likely to be employed by individuals who want to mislead their listeners, as such individuals generally try to inspire their listeners to some sort of rash action, rather than encouraging them to think more carefully about their choices. As a brief example, consider a case in which a software company is deciding whether to rent computing resources from a provider like Amazon or buy its own hardware. A manager might make a statement like, If we rent, well pay an unbearably large amount of money in the long term, and if we buy our own hardware, well spend even more time than we already do on maintenance. The manager might be suggesting that his employees try instead to write more efficient software that can run on just the existing computing resources, rather than jumping immediately to the prospect of obtaining more such resources. Finally, Id like to briefly discuss ways to rebut misleading arguments by dilemma, all of which are fairly intuitive. There are three major techniques first, show that one of the alternatives presented as undesirable is actually desirable; second, show that there are alternatives that the speaker overlooked; third, identify the speakers motives or his implied claims and demonstrate that theyre selfish, short-sighed, or otherwise illegitimate (p. 335). So, I hope youve learned a bit more about a type of argument you are probably all familiar with but whose formal name you likely didnt know. If you take anything away from this speech, it should be that arguments by dilemma should generally be avoided, as they tend to overlook the nuances of a subject. Or, to go back to the words of George W. Bush, youre either with us or against us is almost never valid reasoning.

References Schiappa, E., & Nordin, J. (2012). Keeping Faith with Reason: A Theory of Practical Argumentation.