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War for Men's Minds

False Dichotomies
by Joseph Rowlands

In studying the ideas of Objectivism, it's hard not to notice how often the term 'dichotomy' comes up. There's the is/ought dichotomy. There's the mind/body dichotomy. There's the moral/practical dichotomy. The list is a long one.

A dichotomy is defined as "division into two usually contradictory parts or opinions". It's when you classify things into two mutually exclusive categories. Dichotomies are a useful conceptual tool. If properly used, they divide things into two groups. They're mutually exclusive, meaning something can be in only one group or the other. But the categories are also exhaustive. If something is not in one, it must be in the other.

Objectivist literature mentions dichotomies frequently, but usually in a negative sense. The dichotomies mentioned above and many others are false dichotomies. This means that the two categories are either non-exhaustive, or they overlap some. Either case can lead to conceptual mistakes. You count on something fitting in one, and not fitting in another. If the groups are not mutually exclusive, you might see that an idea fits in one group, and falsely assume that it doesn't fit in the other. Similarly, if it's not exhaustive, you may see that an idea doesn't fit in one, and assume it must fit in the other.

An example of the non-exhaustive categorization occurs in the false selfish/altruist dichotomy. In this sense selfish is meant to be actions that benefit yourself and hurt others. Altruism is hurting yourself to benefit others. If you believe this is a real dichotomy, then you only get to choose who to hurt. Rand attacked this false alternative by showing that it's possible to act in your rational self-interest, which doesn't require hurting others, and might even benefit them.

An example of a dichotomy that isn't mutually exclusive is the moral/practical dichotomy. This is the belief that an action is either morally praiseworthy, or it is useful, but not both. If you run a business, it's practical, but not morally praiseworthy. If you give until it hurts, it's morally praiseworthy, but not practical. Again Rand attacked this as a false dichotomy, showing that not only can the moral and the practical overlap, but that they should.

So the question is, why are there so many false dichotomies? Why did Rand spend a lot of time debunking them? Why do these false dichotomies trick philosophers and laymen alike? What accounts for the prevalence?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that the dichotomies seem to present the full range of possibilities. You're given a choice between two options that are presumed to be exhaustive. And often one of the options is obviously bad. This explains why these dichotomies can stand the test of time. It's not just a bad idea accepted without merit. The ideas are seen as the only possibilities, and you just need to pick the best of the two. Altruism wouldn't have survived if it wasn't believed that the only other choice was brutish selfishness. Communism wouldn't be as appealing if the other choice hadn't been enslavement by the wealthy few.

This also means that these dichotomies are often self-reinforcing. If one of the categories is particularly bad, people will avoid leaving the safety of the first category so they don't get labeled as part of the other group. For instance, few people would want to speak up against altruism when they'll be immediately labeled as a selfish brute who thinks nothing of anyone but themselves.

Think of other examples. A reason/emotion dichotomy would make everyone either cold, calculating and heartless on one hand, or compassionate and loving on the other. If you try to argue using logic, they can dismiss you as a heartless, cruel person. A common view of capitalism vs. communism is a system supporting the rich versus supporting the poor. The choice only seems to be who is the beneficiary of the looting. If you don't support communism, you must want poor people and children to die! There are many more examples.

This shows the power and the survivability of a false dichotomy. These false alternatives are difficult to challenge. If you assume they're true dichotomies, you may never question the hidden assumptions. And once accepted, they have mechanisms that reinforce them. Fortunately, once the dichotomy is clearly seen as a false one, it's can be easy to convey that information. The strength of these ideas is in them being viewed as exhaustive and mutually exclusive. Once that assumption is challenged, the house of cards can come tumbling down. And that's a good reason to remember to check your premises.

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