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Voltaire on self-delusion

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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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