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The Dilemma

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The dilemma is the common form of argument in ordinary language. It is, in essence, an argumentative device in which syllogisms on the same topic are combined, sometimes with devastating effect. Each of the constituent syllogisms may be quite ordinary, and therefore the dilemma is not of special importance from a strictly logical point of view. But the premises of the syllogisms so combined are formulated distinctively, and devised in a way designed to trap the opponent by forcing him to accept one or the other of the disjuncts. Thus the opponent is forced to accept the truth of the conclusion of one or the other of the syllogisms combined. When this is done successfully, the dilemma can prove to be a powerful instrument of persuasion.

We say somewhat loosely that a person is "in" a dilemma (or "impaled on the horns of a dilemma") when that person must choose between two alternatives, both of which are bad or unpleasant. The dilemma is a form of argument intended to put one's opponent in just that kind of position. In debate, one uses a dilemma to offer alternative positions to one's adversary, from which a choice must be made, and then to prove that no matter which choice is made, the adversary is committed to an unacceptable conclusion.

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