Uncommon Sense

December 13, 2018

Dichotomist Nonsense

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 12:58 pm

I ran across a Harlan Ellison quote today: “I know that pain is the most important thing in the universe: greater than survival, greater than love, greater even than the beauty it brings about. For without pain, there can be no pleasure.” He is an author whose work I have read a lot, although he is not necessarily one of my favorites. (He is a brilliant and fabulous writer.) I plucked out this quote because it demonstrates erroneous dichotomous thinking. Dichotomies are two “opposites” such as pleasure and pain, good and evil, smart and stupid, etc. And a common argument is if you didn’t have the one, you wouldn’t also have the other. An example is that we all can’t be rich, so “the poor will always be among us.”

This is bullshit of course.

Let me give just one example: eating an ice cream cone. Is it good? (Assume it is your favorite ice cream, favorite cone, etc.) Is it good? You bet your ass it is good! How do you know? Must you compare that pleasurable sensation with poking yourself in the eye with a sharp stick? (Doesn’t that sound silly?)

The reason these dichotomies are stupid is that the argument only works if there are only two possible states, that is they are alternatives. Either you have one or you have the other. But most things are not like that; in fact, very few are. Most things are parts of continuous ranges of values. So, the good of a favorite ice cream cone is immediately comparable with “normal” meaning “no ice cream cone.” Pain is not necessary to make a definition of pleasure. Everything can be compared to the “norm” or the status quo. So pain is not necessary as a framer of pleasure: non pleasure does that quite well.

This false thinking is behind all kinds of foolishness, such as happiness quotients. “Happy” and “Sad” are not two states. In between are unhappy and unsad in large manifolds. And happiness is not something to pursue. At best it is a marker. Short stints of feeling happy are a good sign that you are well balanced. The rest of the time things like contentment, gratitude, etc. are much more worthy states to be in.

False dichotomies are rampant in political argumentation. I have written often enough about the false dichotomy of “moral” and “immoral.” The vast majority of the time we are amoral, that is we act in ways that do not impinge upon morals or ethics. So, washing your car, driving to work, making the kids lunches: are these moral acts? And aren’t many of our actions a tiny bit immoral, even though we claim to be moral actors, by and large? Have you ever driven over the speed limit in a school zone, endangering members of the next generation? Have you ever been a scofflaw by walking against the pedestrian traffic lights? Have you ever been given too much change for a purchase and not returned the excess? Do any of these make you immoral or even the acts immoral? They are all matters of degree. They are all on a wide spectrum of behaviors. So why do we always pursue the false dichotomies that litter our thinking: liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, capitalists and socialists, believers and atheists? I suspect that it is because thinking is hard … and slow … so we would rather take the shorter, faster route to a position. I wonder of our democracy (being different from other democracies) can survive such laziness?

“The majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own.” Alex de Tocqueville (observing U.S. citizens)



  1. The dichotomy of the two choices has bothered me for quite some time. I’m at the point now I at least try to take a third view automatically. As an atheist I was struck by this idea a while back, and maybe the greatest false choice is belief or atheism. Forced to explain unbelief at every turn, when the real choice probably lies somewhere else completely. Not as a fence sitting agnostic, but somewhere else altogether. Quantum potentials or creation anyone?


    Comment by jim- — December 13, 2018 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

  2. Aren’t you suggesting a dichotomy yourself?
    1. Dichotomies are true.
    2. Dichotomies are nonsense.

    There isn’t a wide range of alternative positions.


    Comment by John Branyan — December 13, 2018 @ 3:36 pm | Reply

  3. Habitualisation makes it a moving target, anyway.


    Comment by john zande — December 13, 2018 @ 4:08 pm | Reply

  4. The one that probably irritates me the most is : ”What would you rather be, right or happy?”

    When I hear this is it drives me spare.


    Comment by Arkenaten — December 14, 2018 @ 3:28 am | Reply

  5. “Most things are parts of continuous ranges of values…”

    Yes! Unlike ye olde light switch (on/off), most things in life are like a very sensitive dimmer slider. It’s like the attempt to quantify people as Poor, Middle Class, and Rich, with definite barriers between the groups. I’m *barely* better off than the “poor” guy who lives next door to me, but I’m not technically “poor”, so our lives are supposedly entirely different.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Anderson Connors — December 14, 2018 @ 9:04 am | Reply

  6. Excellent, Steve.

    I prefer the notion of BOTH AND to EITHER OR.


    Comment by Zach — December 14, 2018 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

  7. The false dichotomy is the stepping stone to the slippery slope.

    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by shelldigger — December 15, 2018 @ 10:07 am | Reply

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