Perfectionist Fallacy is another variant of the False Dilemma. In this case, the False Dilemma is between something being perfect or rejecting it. Since perfection is not possible, it is concluded that the thing must be rejected. It has the following form:
Premise 1: X must be perfect, or it must be rejected (when there are other options).
Premise 2: X is not perfect.
Conclusion: Therefore, X must be rejected.
The fallacy can also occur when the standards are unreasonably high:
Premise 1: X must meet unreasonably high standards, or it must be rejected (when there are other options).
Premise 2: X does not meet the unreasonably high standards.
Conclusion: Therefore, X must be rejected.
A person might believe that perfection or other unreasonably high standard is required and commit this fallacy in good faith. But the fallacy is usually used as a bad faith argument to reject something. Since the extreme form of this fallacy is obviously fallacious, someone intentionally using this fallacy will usually not explicitly require perfection. Instead, they will start with unreasonably high standards. If these standards are somehow met, they will often use Moving the Goalpost to change the standards until they cannot be met.
In such cases, the person committing the fallacy knows they are intentionally requiring an unreasonably high standard and are hoping the fallacy will go undetected. This is a form of False Dilemma because it occurs when there are other viable options beyond perfection (or unreasonably high standards) or nothing. This fallacy is often used in political debates when one side opposes a proposed law. They will argue in bad faith that the new law would not perfectly solve the problem and hence the law should not be passed.
It is not a fallacy to require that something meet reasonable standards or be rejected. There can be good faith debates about what counts as a reasonable standard, so merely having high standards does not entail that this fallacy has been committed. For example, while a hospital administrator should not expect a perfect back-up power system, it would be reasonable for them to expect a reliable system that could power the hospital for an adequate amount of time. How reliable and how long lasting the system must be can certainly be debated.
As another example, it is reasonable and wise to assess a proposed law to determine if it would be effective and beneficial. If there are good reasons to believe that the law would not effectively address a problem, then it would be reasonable to consider other alternatives. One should also consider that there can be times when a poor solution is better than none.
Defense: To avoid falling for (or unintentionally committing) this fallacy, the main defense is assessing whether the required standards are reasonable or not. If the standards are unreasonably high, then this fallacy has (probably) been committed.
When you suspect someone is committing this fallacy in bad faith, one way to test this is to consider what standards they apply in similar cases. For example, people who use this fallacy to argue against passing a law they dislike generally do not apply the same standards to laws they like. As always, showing that someone is arguing in bad faith does not prove their claim is false or argument is fallacious (see the Bad Faith fallacy). But exposing bad faith and showing that someone does not accept their own fallacious argument or false claim can undercut the rhetorical force of their efforts.
Herb: “Oh my God, another school shooting. This time over twenty people were killed. I know I say this after every shooting, but Congress needs to do something. We need laws passed like those in Australia, laws that have proven effective in reducing homicides. Also, suicides.”
Terry: “While I have thoughts and prayers for those families, we can never have enough laws to prevent all evil. Evil people do not obey laws. So people who want to shoot children will just get guns and do it, no matter how many laws we pass.”
Herb: “The laws don’t need to perfectly solve the problem.”
Terry: “Look, we can pass all the laws you want, but at the end of the day there will still be violence.”
Herb: “So, we should not pass any laws?”
Herb: “So, those anti-abortion laws should be repealed?”
Terry: “What? No.”
Terry: “Thank goodness that pro-life laws are being passed. They will save so many children. We must always think of the children first.”
Herb: “Well, those laws might have good intentions behind them but…”
Terry: “But what?”
Herb: “While I have thoughts and prayers for those who are aborted, we can never have enough laws to prevent all evil. Evil people do not obey laws. So, people who want to get abortions will just do it, no matter how many laws we pass.”
Terry: “The laws don’t need to perfectly solve the problem.”
Herb: “Look, we can pass all the laws you want, but at the end of the day there will still be abortions.”
Terry: “So, we should not pass any laws?”
Terry: “So, those guns control laws you like should be repealed?”
Herb: “What? No.”