The Fallacy of False Choices

Why Obama’s favorite rhetorical tic can be misleading.

Also in Slate: Fred Kaplan praises Obama’s speech for its delicate balance between lofty ideals and hard realism. John Dickerson examines the challenges Obama navigated in spelling out a doctrine that seeks peace but acknowledges the necessity of war.

President Barack Obama accepts the Nobel Peace Prize.
President Barack Obama accepts the Nobel Peace Prize

President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on Thursday featured one of his favorite rhetorical devices: the false choice.

“Within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists—a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world,” he said. “I reject these choices.” Instead, he went on, it is in America’s interests to encourage human rights and democracy in other countries. Helping them helps us.

While the idea itself may be Bushian, its framing is vintage Obama. He made a similar comparison in his inaugural address: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” In fact, they are compatible—codependent even: “Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

Just as bogus is the seeming tension between deficits and stimulus. Earlier this week, Obama rejected the notion that we must “choose between paying down our deficits on the one hand, and investing in job creation and economic growth on the other. This is a false choice.” You may have thought that national security requires spending lots of money to pay contractors overseas. Nope: “I reject the false choice between securing this nation and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars,” Obama said in March. That old trope about free markets vs. socialism? Gone: “[W]e need not choose between a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism and an oppressive government-run economy,” he wrote in the Chicago Tribune. He also tossed out the notion that stem cell research poses a dilemma for people of faith: “Our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values,” he said. “In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research—and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.” Environmental debates are fraught with fallacy as well, he says: “There’s been a tension between those who have sought to conserve our natural resources for the benefit of future generations, and those who have sought to profit from these resources. But I’m here to tell you this is a false choice.”

All of which is a fancy way of saying: It’s more complicated than you think. The world is not black and white. Grow up.

The device works well for Obama because he revels in nuance. Rejecting false choices allows him to toss out the paradigm—the “old battles,” as he likes to call them—and show people a new, third way. That tic is also an explicit rejection of his predecessor’s rhetoric. It’s hard to find a starker—and falser—choice than “You’re with us or against us.”

Those surrounding Obama seem to have picked up the habit. In his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff Director James Winnefeld said that Russia and the United States “have chosen to reject the false choice between cooperation on security and ceding a nation or region to the other’s sphere of influence.” Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin has used the device at least twice. “We reject the false choice between consumer protection and innovation,” he told the American Bankers Association in July. “We should have a financial system that both fosters innovation and provides strong consumer protections.” (As if to confirm the Obama homage, Wolin started the next sentence with: “Let me be clear. …”)

But pointing to false choices can lead to a different logical fallacy: the straw man. Take the false dichotomy of “securing this nation and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.” To be sure, no one is suggesting that securing this nation requires “wasting” billions of dollars. They think of it as investing in a worthy cause. Whatever you think ofBush’s team, no one set out to waste money in Iraq. Quite the opposite: They thought the war would be quick and cheap. Hemorrhaging money may have been the tragic outcome. But no one made that explicit choice.

Critics also argue that Obama cries “false choice” simply to avoid confronting a choice that is actually very real. Mark Steyn argues in the National Review that “an oppressive government-run economy” is a real possibility in Obama’s America. Ben Shapiro at Human Events calls the president’s worldview “childish”: “All choices are ‘false choices’ if we just think deeply enough,” he writes. “Or rather, if Obama thinks deeply enough.”

But that misses the point. Obama doesn’t use “false choice” rhetoric to avoid making decisions. He also uses it when he’s making a choice. There may not be a necessary tradeoff between national security and spending billions of dollars. But we’re spending billions more in Afghanistan. We may not need to choose between safety and our ideals. But we have not released the Guantanamo interrogation photos. Stem cell research may not need to offend our moral values. But until we’re able to conduct it without relying on discarded human embryos, the choice is there.

In a way, Obama’s incessant talk about rejecting the “false choices” allows him to weigh both sides of an argument while obscuring the fact that he’s actually choosing one of them. The choice in question may indeed be false. But often, so is the device itself.

AP Video: Obama Accepts Nobel Peace Prize