The Nirvana Fallacy

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By aaron

The nirvana fallacy is a fallacy in which someone rejects an answer to a question or a solution to a problem because it is not a perfect solution, even if the proposed perfect solution is unrealistic or unfeasible. This is a fallacy because while a solution may not be perfect, that doesn't necessarily mean it is ineffective or wrong.

This is very closely related to another fallacy called the perfect solution fallacy, which is the fallacy of assuming there is a perfect solution to a problem when there isn't one. The difference between the two fallacies is very subtle, so let's look at each one more closely.

The nirvana fallacy is when lesser solutions are rejected because they aren't perfect. Consider this example:
We shouldn't be wasting time researching drugs to decrease symptoms of HIV. We should be finding a cure for HIV.

This is a nirvana fallacy because many if not most people would agree that a total cure for HIV would be a “perfect solution”, and while no cure exists yet, it is within the realm of possibility. But just because such a solution is possible, that doesn't mean we should neglect other treatments that still increase quality of life for people with HIV/AIDS. Rejecting short term treatments in favor of a complete cure that doesn't even exist yet is a nirvana fallacy.

In contrast, the perfect solution fallacy is when no perfect solution exists at all. For example, in politics, there will never be a perfect candidate for president, because no president will ever be able to make everyone happy. Suggesting that there is some perfect candidate that will satisfy everyone is a perfect solution fallacy.

The nirvana fallacy is when someone holds out on a solution while waiting for a perfect solution. The perfect solution fallacy is when there is no perfect solution. A perfect solution fallacy can become a nirvana fallacy if that unrealistic solution is used as grounds to reject a solution that is realistic and practical.

It is important to realize that not all demands for quality are necessarily nirvana fallacies. There are situations where a certain degree of perfection is required, such as engineering safety components on aircraft. The nirvana fallacy only applies when perfection is unrealistic. In the case of aircraft, it is not a fallacy to say that we should have a minimum level of effectiveness on safety mechanisms. Such safety measures are very realistic and have been implemented on other aircraft, so it would be a fallacy to say that we shouldn't bother with such mechanisms because we should just build a plane that never crashes.

On the other hand, while the simpler solution doesn't have to be perfect, it does have to be effective. The nirvana fallacy is most applicable when the lesser solution, while not perfect, is still a viable solution. If the lesser solution is insignificant compared to the overall problem, it is sometimes a valid argument to reject the ineffective solutions, because an ineffective solution could do more harm than good by reallocating resources away from another solution that might have a real impact.

For instance, if you are on a sinking ship, trying to empty the water with buckets would be worthless. You are better off getting to a lifeboat. This is not a nirvana fallacy, because the bad solution of trying to scoop out the water would be ineffective and would only waste time that could be better spent getting to the lifeboat. The nirvana fallacy would only enter the picture when you refuse to get into the lifeboat because you would prefer get on another cruise ship instead.

Another reason the nirvana fallacy is a fallacy is because it frequently acts as another type of fallacy called a false dichotomy, which is the idea that a claim is either right or wrong with no middle ground. Often, a nirvana fallacy acts as a false dichotomy by saying that a solution is either perfect or not perfect, while neglecting the gray area in between. Most issues of importance are more complicated than that, and an imperfect solution can frequently act as a short term fix while also being a step toward a better solution.

Consider the example given earlier about HIV. Rejecting short term treatments that only treat the symptoms of the disease presents a false dichotomy, because it ignores the fact that short term treatments are a step toward a cure. By researching and developing treatments for the symptoms, researchers also learn more about the disease that might lead to a cure.

When finding a solution to a problem, there are times when it makes sense to demand a certain level of quality and effectiveness. But if you reject an effective solution just because it isn't perfect, you are committing the nirvana fallacy. #logic #skepticism #critical thinking #fallacy #fallacies

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