Perfect solution fallacy

by Tim Harding

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” — Voltaire

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing
because he could do only a little.”
– Edmund Burke

The Perfect Solution Fallacy (also known as the ‘Nirvana Fallacy) is a false dichotomy that occurs when an argument assumes that a perfect solution to a problem exists; and that a proposed solution should be rejected because some part of the problem would still exist after it were implemented. In other words, that a course of action should be rejected because it is not perfect, even though it is the best option available.   

This fallacy is an example of black and white thinking, in which a person fails to see the complex interplay between multiple component elements of a situation or problem, and as a result, reduces complex problems to a pair of binary extremes. It usually takes the following logical form:

Premise 1: X is what we have or is being proposed.

Premise 2: Y is the perfect situation, even though it may not be achievable.

Conclusion: Therefore, X should be rejected, even if it is the best available option.

Some practical examples of this fallacy are: 

Posit (fallacious): These anti-drunk driving ad campaigns are not going to work. People are still going to drink and drive no matter what.
Rebuttal: Complete eradication of drunk driving is not the expected outcome. The goal is reduction.

Posit (fallacious): Seat belts are a bad idea. People are still going to die in car crashes.
Rebuttal: While seat belts cannot make driving 100% safe, they do reduce one’s likelihood of dying in a car crash.

Other examples include:

This fallacy is often committed by anti-vaccinationists. Their argument is that a particular vaccine only protects 95% of the time, and there is a (very tiny) risk  of adverse side effects.  So they’d rather take their chances with a potentially fatal disease, which is an example of faulty risk assessment. Their fallacious reasoning also ignores the evidence that if there is herd immunity, 95% of the time is more than enough.

On the other hand, striving for perfection is not the same thing as the Perfect Solution Fallacy.  Having a goal of perfection or near perfection, and working towards that goal, is admirable.  However, giving up on the goal because perfection is not attained, despite major improvements being achieved, is fallacious.

Sources
Nirvana fallacy RationalWiki

Parinirvana Buddha (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Parinirvana Buddha (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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6 Comments

Filed under Logical fallacies

6 responses to “Perfect solution fallacy

  1. NotStupidG

    Your premise seems reasonable, although it seems to be a thinly veiled and specious attack on the anti-vaccination group. People who choose not to vaccinate don’t do so because vaccination “isn’t perfect” – but that the ideology behind vaccination theory and herd immunity isn’t rejected because of imperfection, but rather because they are based upon the concept of acceptable losses. Acceptable losses are fine when you’re playing chess or running a business, because you can start a new game or make adjustments to cover the losses. Parents do not have those options – every child is precious and it is incumbent upon the parents to do the very best they can do to raise their child to be a happy, healthy, productive member of society.

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  2. It is difficult to evaluate this argument because you have listed 3 premises without drawing a conclusion. (Your summary appears to be a restatement of premise 1).

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  3. georg

    What is the name of the logical fallacy in this example?
    1. Mayor R-B says of City A to reporters after the riots: “If you knew what I know, then you’d know that how I handled the riot was justified.”
    2. Mayor R-B said during the riot: “I’ve told the police to give rioters space to destroy city A.”
    3. Mayor R-B was criticized by the media for giving rioters permission to destroy City A

    Summary: Mayor R-B is saying that she has certain knowledge that the media does not know, and if the media had this knowledge then the media would do the same thing she did.

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    • sophiashapira

      georg – I do not follow what you are saying.

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    • sophiashapira

      I know! (Though I know not how this relates to this individual article.)

      If your conclusion were a full restatement of your first three statements it would end with “if the media had this knowledge, they would see her actions as justified” — while instead it ends with “if the media had this knowledge then the media would do the same thing she did”.

      Seeing someone’s actions as justified is *not* the same thing as doing the same thing that yourself. It is possible for person D to see person’s E’s actions as justified, but still for person D to have their *own* course of action that they’d do instead.

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