Imagine for a moment, you are standing on a tall platform that overlooks a small rail yard. A single set of tracks enters and about halfway through the yard, a slight fork makes two diverging paths. Down one fork, several children are playing on and around the tracks. On the other fork, an older rail-worker is inspecting the tracks and footings. Suddenly, you hear a train screaming down the tracks entering the yard. You notice that the rail switch is set to guide the train towards the set of tracks where the children are playing. Next to you on the platform is a button that will direct the train to the other set of tracks instead. What do you do?
This paradox is known as the trolley dilemma, and is a classic thought exercise in moral philosophy. When presented with these options, coming to a conclusion can be frustrating, especially if you find yourself agreeing with both parties in some way. The problem is designed to present you with only two options, both of which have positive and negative moral weight. This is called a “False Dilemma,” or “The Bifurcation Fallacy.” We present ourselves, or others, with only two options when there are actually more. If this situation were to actually happen to you, it is very unlikely that you would be left with only the two choices above.
These “false dilemmas” hamper our ability to collect and interpret information. So many voices in our country today convince us that in every situation there is a right and wrong, a true and a false. They present us with false dilemmas. They force us to think in terms of either/or and reject the complicated nature of our conscious. Many situations have a very large grey area where actions may not be right or wrong.
This article in the 1828 journal, published at King’s College in London, talks about some of the dangers associated with binary, or either/or, thinking. What I found most interesting is the ability of binary thought to polarize a group even before any discussion begins. Max Edgson discusses how when an issue is brought up, we almost automatically start to create a “pros and cons” list, which tricks our mind into thinking we can either be for or against the issue. So, without even having time to fully understand what the issue is, we have already decided whether or not we will support it. We see this issue in the United States political scene all the time. Here is one example: the country has been captivated by Robert Mueller and the special counsel. As soon as the investigation began, the country became polarized over it. On one side, there were those who were convinced that President Trump was guilty of the highest treason against the United States, and then there were those who were adamant in their claim to his outright innocence. We did not hear much of any “grey area” concerns. This dichotomy of thought led to more confusion when Mueller’s report was released.. For example, the report found the President did not engage in criminal conspiracy with Russia. However the report also showed that the Trump campaign/administration invited Russian assistance, lied about it and on multiple occasions, and tried to hamper the special counsel’s investigation. The believers on both sides used the report to further entrench themselves in their convictions. Perhaps both parties are wrong and the truth lies somewhere in between their sentiment.
Another example of how binary thought could potentially betray us comes from the world of marketing and advertising. Companies advertise their products in a way that trick us into thinking that we can either buy their product and gain some incredible reward, or we can abstain from purchasing their product and live a mundane and colorless life. In reality, those are not the only two options. People are more than capable of living extremely fulfilling and colorful lives without buying product X, Y, or Z, but we are trapped for a moment in a place where we only recognize the two options the company is giving us.
My third and final example is about honesty. So often we are told that we only have two choices when it comes to honesty. We can either tell the truth, which is good, or we can lie, which is bad. But morality isn’t that black and white. An individual can tell the truth, but also forget to mention a certain detail, which could be considered lying by omission. Or, an individual might tell a lie that has no impact on the world around them (i.e. a white lie) in order to achieve a greater moral good. Or, someone might purposely lie. They might fabricate a complicated, intricate world in order to manipulate others and scam them. Each of these different situations have varying levels of moral “greyness,” so it becomes difficult to truly believe that all lying is bad, or all truth telling is good.
Now that I have established the binary thought can change the way we interact with the world and others, I want to dive into how we can utilize it to our advantage, and other schools of thought we can adopt as well.
This article from the Stanford Law School does a good job at outlining the good, the bad, and the ugly of binary thinking in an easy to read format. Ryan Long cites sources that show binary thought is part of being human. It is in our evolution. We need it to make split second fight or flight decisions. It is also very useful when we are presented a situation with two “right” choices. But Mr. Long also points out that the same path of thinking can change a good and beneficial idea into an evil and destructive idea by simply adding the “republican” or “democrat” sticker on the end of it.
One alternative to binary thought is directional thought. In order to fully embrace directional thought, you have to be willing to accept that the world is not black and white. This way of thinking is almost like standing in the middle of a large, dimly lit room. There is enough light that you can figure out where you want to end up, but not enough light for you to be able to completely comprehend the best way to get there. Directional thought is seeing your end goal and then making small steps in order to reach it. Maybe along your path there will be a long table you have to navigate around, or some pails of water you accidentally knock over. Directional thinking is moving in the right direction and making course adjustments along the way. This path acknowledges that we don’t know everything yet, but we are working with what we have.
Another alternative to binary thinking is dialectical thinking. This method usually involves two or more people with differing viewpoints asking questions to each other. The intent of the questions is to incite deeper thought and to expose potential fallacies in a particular argument. The end goal of dialectics is to establish truth and understanding through reasoned arguments. To learn more about dialectic thought, read this article. I also discussed using the Socratic method (very similar to dialectic thought) in order to establish personal understanding and truth in one of my blog posts.
In conclusion, either/or thinking isn’t all bad, but it also isn’t all good. We should be wary of people who use extreme binaries in their rhetoric. We should strive to find common ground between the binary options. We should search for the greater truth. Thanks for reading.