Dilemma

What Is Dilemma?

A man being on the horns of a dilemma
“A man being on the horns of a dilemma (image courtesy of: Frank Sonnenberg Online”.

Dilemma (etymologically from Greek, literally “double proposition”), is a kind of argumentOpens in new window that presents two difficult alternatives, both irrespective of their dichotomiesOpens in new window proved to be realistically unacceptable for someone, or some circumstance.

Dilemmas typically confronts us with difficult situations requiring a choice between two (or more) equally undesirable outcomes. A person in a position of dilemma is oftentimes referenced as being on the horns of a dilemmaOpens in new window,” either of the ‘horn’ being uncomfortable to make a decisive choice.

In the rhetoric, dilemmas are often employed as rhetorical device to make propositions, which typically bring about a confrontational argument in this form:

  • Either Alternative X or Alternative Y
    If Alternative X then Alternative Z
    If Alternative Y then Alternative W
    Therefore, either Alternative Z or Alternative W

Most times the undesired resultant effect of Alternative Z and Alternative W are equally alike, sometimes quite different. To exemplify this scenario, let’s adopt the example offered by an ingenious author:

  • “Either our fellow citizens are good or they’re bad. If they are good, laws to deter crime aren’t needed. But if they’re bad, laws to deter crime won’t succeed. So, laws to deter crime either are not needed or won’t succeed.”

This kind of argument when applied incorrectly often constitutes a fallacy of false dilemmaOpens in new window, because with one of its premise being false, it tends to bring about uncogent argument; nevertheless, this variety of argument is almost always valid.

A certain demonstrative way to show that the premise having the form “Either alternative X or alternative Y” is false, is by proving that there is at least another possible viability. Adopting the phrase of an ingenious author, this is called “going between the horns” of the dilemma. In the case of the dilemma just mentioned, a viable alternative is that our fellow citizens may be both good (in some ways) and bad (in others).

Further Readings:
Wikipedia | DilemmaOpens in new window
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English | DilemmaOpens in new window
Collins English Dictionary | Definition of DilemmaOpens in new window