The Black-or-White Fallacy


Taxonomy: Logical Fallacy > Informal Fallacy > The Black-or-White Fallacy


Gerda Reith is convinced that superstition can be a positive force. "It gives you a sense of control by making you think you can work out what's going to happen next," she says. "And it also makes you feel lucky. And to take a risk or to enter into a chancy situation, you really have to believe in your own luck. In that sense, it's a very useful way of thinking, because the alternative is fatalism, which is to say, 'Oh, there's nothing I can do.' At least superstition makes people do things."4



See the Exposure section, below.


The black-or-white fallacy occurs in arguments that have a disjunctive premiss―that is, one that gives alternatives―when one or more alternatives is incorrectly omitted. The fallacy tries to force you to choose either black or white when gray is an available alternative.


Beware of the phrase "the alternative": there is seldom a single alternative available. If you hear that "the" alternative to some view or action is something unpleasant or obviously false, always ask: "Are there other alternatives? What are they?" The phrase "the alternative" is often a tip-off that a black-or-white fallacy is coming up. See the Example, above.


Analysis of the Example:

Fatalism is not the alternative to superstition; it is an alternative. Superstition involves acting in ways that are ineffective, whereas fatalism involves failing to act even in situations in which our efforts can be effective. Fortunately, there are other alternatives, such as recognizing that there are some things we can control and other things we cannot, and only acting in the first case.


  1. This fallacy is known by an unusually large number of aliases. I prefer "black-or-white fallacy" because it best describes the nature of the logical mistake underlying it. See S. Morris Engel's With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (6th Edition) (St. Martin's, 2000), pp. 144, 153-6 & 302, for all of these aliases except "black-and-white fallacy" and "false dichotomy", but including "black-or-white fallacy".
  2. Peter A. Angeles, Dictionary of Philosophy (2000), see under "Fallacy, types of informal (1)".
  3. Nigel Warburton, Thinking A to Z (2nd edition, 2000).
  4. David Newnham, "Hostages to Fortune", The Guardian.
  5. Some logicians do include an entire category for fallacies of false or questionable premises in order to have a place for this fallacy and begging the question. For an example, see Engel, Note 1, above, who calls this category "fallacies of presumption" (Chapter 4).