A dilemma is a problem
A problem is an obstacle, impediment, difficulty or challenge, or any situation that invites resolution; the resolution of which is recognized as a solution or contribution toward a known purpose or goal...

 offering two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable. One in this position has been traditionally described as "being on the horns of a dilemma", neither horn being comfortable. This is sometimes more colorfully described as "Finding oneself impaled upon the horns of a dilemma", referring to the sharp points of a bull's horns, equally uncomfortable (and dangerous).

The dilemma is sometimes used as a rhetorical device
Rhetorical device
In rhetoric, a rhetorical device or resource of language is a technique that an author or speaker uses to convey to the listener or reader a meaning with the goal of persuading him or her towards considering a topic from a different perspective. While rhetorical devices may be used to evoke an...

, in the form "you must accept either A, or B"; here A and B would be propositions each leading to some further conclusion. Applied incorrectly, it constitutes a false dichotomy, a fallacy
In logic and rhetoric, a fallacy is usually an incorrect argumentation in reasoning resulting in a misconception or presumption. By accident or design, fallacies may exploit emotional triggers in the listener or interlocutor , or take advantage of social relationships between people...


Types of dilemmas

Colorful names have been given to many types of dilemmas.
  • Double bind
    Double bind
    A double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual receives two or more conflicting messages, in which one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other , so that...

    : conflicting requirements ensure that the victim will automatically be wrong.
  • Ethical dilemma
    Ethical dilemma
    An Ethical dilemma is a complex situation that will often involve an apparent mental conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another....

    : a choice between moral imperatives.
  • Extortion
    Extortion is a criminal offence which occurs when a person unlawfully obtains either money, property or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion. Refraining from doing harm is sometimes euphemistically called protection. Extortion is commonly practiced by organized crime...

    : the choice between paying the extortionist and suffering an unpleasant action.
  • Hobson's choice
    Hobson's choice
    A Hobson's choice is a free choice in which only one option is offered. As a person may refuse to take that option, the choice is therefore between taking the option or not; "take it or leave it". The phrase is said to originate with Thomas Hobson , a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England...

    : a choice between something and nothing; "take it or leave it".
  • Morton's fork
    Morton's Fork
    A Morton's Fork is a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives , or two lines of reasoning that lead to the same unpleasant conclusion...

    : choices yield equivalent, often undesirable, results.
  • Prisoner's dilemma
    Prisoner's dilemma
    The prisoner’s dilemma is a canonical example of a game, analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interest to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W...

    : An inability to coordinate makes cooperation difficult and defection tempting.
  • Samaritan's dilemma
    Samaritan's dilemma
    Samaritan's Dilemma refers to a dilemma in the act of charity. It hinges on the idea that when presented with charity, in some location such as a soup kitchen, a person will act in one of two ways: using the charity to improve their situation, or coming to rely on charity as a means of survival.The...

    : the choice between providing charity, improving another's condition, and withholding it, preventing them from becoming dependent.
  • Sophie's choice
    Sophie's Choice
    Sophie's Choice can refer to:*Sophie's Choice , a 1979 novel written by William Styron which depicts a mother at wit's end faced with a forced decision in which any and all options have equally negative outcomes....

    : a choice between two persons or things that will result in the death or destruction of the person or thing not chosen.
  • Zugzwang
    Zugzwang is a term usually used in chess which also applies to various other games. The term finds its formal definition in combinatorial game theory, and it describes a situation where one player is put at a disadvantage because he has to make a move when he would prefer to pass and make no move...

    : One must move and incur harm when one would prefer to make no move (esp. in chess).

Related terms

Several idiom
Idiom is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is comprehended in regard to a common use of that expression that is separate from the literal meaning or definition of the words of which it is made...

s describe dilemmas:
  • "Between Scylla and Charybdis"
  • "Lesser of two evils"
  • "Between a rock and a hard place", since both objects or metaphorical choices are rough.
  • "Between the devil and the deep blue sea"

A dilemma with more than two forks is sometimes called a trilemma
A trilemma is a difficult choice from three options, each of which is unacceptable or unfavourable.There are two logically equivalent ways in which to express a trilemma: it can be expressed as a choice among three unfavourable options, one of which must be chosen, or as a choice among three...

 (3), tetralemma
The tetralemma is a figure that features prominently in the classical logic of the Greeks. It states that with reference to any a logical proposition X, there are four possibilities:-External links:* Wiktionary definition of tetralemma*...

 (4), or polylemma.

The incorrect spelling dilemna is often seen in common usage. It appears to have been taught in many areas of the United States and all over the world, including (but not limited to) France, London, Yorkshire, Indiana, Jamaica and Australia. There is no prima facie reason for this substitution error and there is no erroneous parallel to be found with the word lemma, from which dilemma derives.

Use in logic

In formal logic
In philosophy, Logic is the formal systematic study of the principles of valid inference and correct reasoning. Logic is used in most intellectual activities, but is studied primarily in the disciplines of philosophy, mathematics, semantics, and computer science...

, the definition of a dilemma differs markedly from everyday usage. Two options are still present, but choosing between them is immaterial because they both imply the same conclusion. Symbolically expressed thus:

Which can be translated informally as "one (or both) of A or B is known to be true, but they both imply C, so regardless of the truth values of A and B we can conclude C."

There are also constructive dilemma
Constructive dilemma
In logic, a constructive dilemma is a formal logical argument that takes the form:Therefore, either Q or S is true.In logical operator notation with three premises P \rightarrow Q R \rightarrow S P \lor R \therefore Q \lor S ....

s and destructive dilemma
Destructive dilemma
In logic, a destructive dilemma is any logical argument of the following form: P \rightarrow Q R \rightarrow S \neg Q \lor \neg S \vdash \neg P \lor \neg R where \vdash represents the logical assertion.The argument can be read in this way:...


Constructive dilemmas

1. (If X, then Y) and (If W, then Z).
2. X or W.
3. Therefore, Y or Z.
4. All are possible.

Destructive dilemmas

1. (If X, then Y) and (If W, then Z).
2. Not Y or not Z.
3. Therefore, not X or not W.

See also

  • Coordination game
    Coordination game
    In game theory, coordination games are a class of games with multiple pure strategy Nash equilibria in which players choose the same or corresponding strategies...

  • Dilemma story
    Dilemma story
    A dilemma story is an African story-form intended to provoke discussion. They are used as a form of both entertainment and instruction....

  • Paradox
    Similar to Circular reasoning, A paradox is a seemingly true statement or group of statements that lead to a contradiction or a situation which seems to defy logic or intuition...

  • There are known knowns
  • Warnock's Dilemma
    Warnock's Dilemma
    Warnock's Dilemma, named for its originator Bryan Warnock, is the problem of interpreting a lack of response to a posting on a mailing list, Usenet newsgroup, or Web forum. It occurs because a lack of response does not necessarily imply that no one is interested in the topic, and could have any one...

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