It seems that a lot of people try to conclude the "inevitable truth" from this argument, as if there would not be a chance for being rich without poverty. With rich and poor I'm referring to a persons wealth.

While researching this issue I came across binary opposition, which as per my understanding defines two opposites that depend on each other so that for example without people being poor we would not be able to understand the notion rich (and vice versa). With this definition it seems like this saying wouldn't be a false dilemma, as there would be no in between.

However can't one define those terms independently too? Poor could be defined as simply not having enough money/wealth to satisfy even the most basic needs like food, water, a house, while rich would be to have way more than enough to satisfy those needs. This would somewhat hint to a third option, which would be to have roughly enough money/wealth to satisfy ones needs. (Actually there suddenly arise a lot of in between, depending on how exact one categorizes people). Wouldn't the saying then be a false dilemma?

EDIT: typo

  • I'm not sure you could classify terms which are defined in contradistinction to each other as a false dilemma. They are both qualifiers of the category of "wealth" which will by necessity be comparative to some agreed upon baseline. – ClearMountainWay Dec 10 '17 at 3:52
  • My english.stackexchange.com/questions/7597/… may or may not be helpful. – barrycarter Dec 10 '17 at 15:24
  • You can have differences in the level of wealth without the obscene levels of inequality seen today; inequality rocketed during the neo-liberal regime, – Mozibur Ullah Dec 10 '17 at 20:26
  • "Basic needs" are a vague and evolving concept, our stone age ancestors lived without much of what today is considered basic. UN established an absolute poverty line in 1995, its official goal is to lift everybody above it. But when we succeed the notion of "needs" will probably shift again, along with the notions of "rich" and "poor". – Conifold Dec 12 '17 at 0:36
  • If you have a dimension along which you measure values then it must have two ends. We live in a world of opposites. This is not a dilemma but just the way it is. If we some people were not poor we'd have no idea what we mean when we say some are wealthy. It's the same conceptual situation as hot-cold, left-right, good-evil etc. – PeterJ Dec 12 '17 at 13:45

'Rich' and 'poor' are mutually exclusive (one can't be both at the same time in the same respect). But one doesn't have to be one or the other - one can have a median position in respect to wealth. That's to say, neither rich nor poor but in the middle of the wealth distribution.

@Alessio Eberl. I don't think you need to prove that there is actually such a group of people as the medians. Conceptually it's enough to prove that logically there could be. 'Rich' and 'poor' are contraries, not contradictories. If one is not rich it doesn't mean one is poor; there's at least a third possibility, namely that one is of median wealth. (Whether medians exist is an economic question, nothing to do with conceptual analysis.) Why assume that rich/ poor is a dichotomy ? 'True' and 'false' are dichotomies if one assumes bivalence - mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. 'Rich' and 'poor' are nothing like this, just points on a continuum : rich at one end, poor at the other and other states of wealth in-between.

  • That's exactly what I was trying to say with my 2nd definition of poor vs rich. From Wikipedia: A dichotomy must be mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. That means if there's a third set of people besides poor and rich, which we both claimed to be "averag/middle", than it is in fact a false dichotomy because poor and rich aren't jointly exhaustve, am I correct? Now I'm asking myself how one proves that there is a 3rd set of people with "average" wealth, however that's probably a seperate question. – Alessio Eberl Dec 10 '17 at 20:59
  • @Alessio Eberl. I don't think you need to prove that there is actually such a group of people as the medians. Conceptually it's enough to prove that logically there could be. 'Rich' and 'Poor' are contraries, not contradictories. If one is not rich it doesn't mean one is poor; there's at least a third possibility, namely that one is of median wealth. Whether medians exist is an economic question, nothing to do with conceptual analysis. – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 10 '17 at 22:22
  • @Goeffrey Thomas Thanks that's exactly what I wanted to know! Can you add this comment to your answer or can I edit it? The facts you stated (contraries vs contradictories) weren't obvious to me. – Alessio Eberl Dec 10 '17 at 22:29
  • @Alessio Eberl. Yes, add whatever comment you want to ! – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 10 '17 at 22:38
  • Thansk, really great answer! – Alessio Eberl Dec 10 '17 at 22:42

It's a false dichotomy because the emphasis, given today's world, is on the wrong aspect.

In the West generally, inequality has mushroomed to obscene levels. And it's a question of addressing this that is a key point in economics.

In the past this was addressed by progressive taxation and controls on rents and wages; collective bargaining power by the less affluent was strong and healthy because of the burgeoning labour movement and an esprit de corps that straddled all sectors of societies.

Today, since the onset of neoliberalism the labour movement has been crushed and society is more atomised than ever. Mary Midgely, a British philosopher observed her generation was lucky as they had an ideal that they could believe in. Today, it's only real-politick that is believed in and market mechanisms have penetrated all sectors of society and this is dangerously inimical to society itself. The proletariat has been rebranded the precariat and many of us find ourselves afloat in a very uncertain and bewildering world with many clues to a better world but few tools to enact change, real change and not the empty, vapid change that passes for real change today.

Your third option, that there is enough to go around is the key concept of redistributive economic justice. The question is getting there in an increasingly automated and automatic world. An idea that that's been kicking around recently is basic income which guarantees a basic income to every citizen that covers the basic neccesities of life. That might be a start. Apparently Finland has just embarked on a major study to see whether this can be made to work.


Starhawk argues, from a basis in traditional pacifism and radical feminism, that rich and poor, even defined in terms of 'needs' remain a false dichotomy founded on an artificial notion of scarcity. For her, this is the ultimate combined source and cause of our difficulty accounting the lasting costs of war and the value of care-giving in our society.

Without a constant fear of scarcity, we have no historical evidence that people measure their 'means' against their 'needs'. Among various pre-modern cultures we see that although people have private property, they still share resources as they become available, even if the structure is time-based trading or other 'lightweight' versions similar to modern economy. In such a culture, a community may be in good or bad stead, but it is not rich or poor, just currently lucky or unlucky.

One may plan to do the best with what is given, saving and managing resources. But there is no objective measure of too much or not enough, because needs are flexible and can reduce as needed to survive difficulty or increase as allowed in a way that enables future austerity, and value is relative as different things are more or less available at different times. When there is 'too much' or 'not enough', only an economic perspective sees this as a gap between resources and needs, because neither of those can be honestly quantified. Other streams of history express these as periods where life is easy or difficult, and more or fewer people survive, not periods where groups or individuals are rich or poor.

What really matters in life is reduced to these two abstractions by this differentiation, which would not exist otherwise. If we did not measure 'what matters' in this way, we would realize that a large quantity of what really keeps us alive is provided by discoveries, efforts and actions that take place outside the economy. In those terms one may be both rich and poor simultaneously. So in any honest accounting, there is no dichotomy here.

And while in economic theory this mismatch can be addressed through trade, giving us a single scale that is simply in flux, in reality we can attempt to control things like river courses or pollution, good or bad family culture, rising water and excess rain through markets and timely intervention. But we ultimately fail. In the U.S. even in Texas, one of our most conservative pro-market and anti-interventionist states, water rights are communal because you can be rich in everything else, and if someone sucks up all your water upstream, you are concurrently poor to the point you cannot survive a season.


This question is almost more of an economics question, but I suppose it could be a philosophy or politics question too. It is indeed a false dichotomy. It would not be, if the economy were a closed environment and thus a zero sum game.

However, the sun gives the planet energy which humans can then use to expand the technosphere: the total system of all things created, used, and shared by humans, and there is a lot of energy available to us to use, for millions, if not hundreds of billions of years. Therefore one human does not have to diminish another person's wealth in order to gain wealth. People can work together to collectively increase wealth, through various methods, including reciprocity, consumerism, capitalism, and so on.


The connection between my answer and the question seems to have been misunderstood, so let me try to explain it in better detail. Because economics is not a zero sum game, everyone can become "rich." The existence of a "poor" group is not necessary in order for there to be a rich group and vise versa. Furthermore, neither "poor" or "rich" have to be defined in terms of the other.

What does it mean to be poor? Economically, it means not having enough resources to reasonably survive, long term, without the immediate and constant aid of another. What does it mean to be rich? It means having enough resources in order to be able to do what you wish, without the need to expend additional energy in order to maintain that status.

Under these two definitions, it is clear that a society could be made up entirely of rich people. In this scenario, no one would need to work in order to "make a living." In order for such a society to exist, I think we would need to have a significant advancement in energy availability however. Such advancement could include efficient nuclear fusion, access to the currently theoretical and certainly debated "zero point energy," or some other form of yet to be discovered energy reservoir, as well as technology which would be able to efficiently translate that energy into production, such as a replicator.


On the specific issue of dichotomy, while "poor" and "rich" do not need to be defined in terms of the other, and while we do not need poor people in order for there to be rich people, I would say that one cannot be both poor and rich. They are mutually exclusive. You can however be neither poor or rich. Both of these points follow from the definitions that I provided.

  • Your "zero sum game" argument is pretty interesting and actually explains the economical implications. However my question was more directed to the argumentative implications of such a saying and its analysis (See the accepted answer). Thanks nonetheless! – Alessio Eberl Dec 10 '17 at 22:44
  • Sorry; I guess I was not clear as to how my answer fits into your question. I edited the answer to make the connection more direct. Does that help, @AlessioEberl? – Daniel Goldman Dec 11 '17 at 12:45
  • Thank you for elaborating! Your answer is valid in a economic context, wich I appreciate! However you could exchange rich and poor in my question with hot and cold, and the accepted answer would still hold, because both are gradable antonyms, that means even though you can't be both at the same time (mutually exclusive), there are still lots of in betweens (not jointly exhaustive), thus failing to be a dichotomy by definition, in contrast to complementary antonyms. Should I edit my question to be more generic? – Alessio Eberl Dec 11 '17 at 15:32
  • I was responding to the idea that there needs to be poor people in order for there to be rich people. As I stated in my answer, you do not need one for the other. – Daniel Goldman Dec 11 '17 at 15:34
  • Yes and that is perfectly valid (and answers other questions I would have had) however my question was specifically about why the saying is not a dichotomy in a linguistic analytical sense, if you will. Your argument wouldn't be applicable to hot vs cold or slow vs fast etc. because it's too concrete, that's why I proposed to change my question. Or am I missing something? – Alessio Eberl Dec 11 '17 at 15:53

Rich and poor are opposites in this particular case, so they are mutually exclusive, the same way as believers and non-believers.

But they are not mutually dependent or proportional, exactly like believers or Star Wars fans and non-fans. The existence of rich does not imply a similar amount of poor. As stated in another answer, rich/poorness does not follow a zero sum behavior.

Money represents the amount of participation in society. There are poor societies, where people does not interact too much and has a low participation. Other societies interact a lot and most people participates.

Another way to understand this phenomenon is by understanding money. A bill is a certificate of the debt that society has to someone. If I help others a lot I generate a lot of debt from them to me, and I get a lot of bills. The central bank of my country calculates the total amount of social debt and prints enough bills to cover such debt. My government is responsible for such bills to be honored when I present them to someone: if I want an apple, I get one of my certificates, give it to the tender in exchange. Legally, he's forced to accept it. If everybody helps the others, we get rich. If no one helps nobody, social debt decreases and we get poor.

In consequence, rich/poor is more a cultural /personal-interactive feature than a limited resources circulation behavior, which is clearly unfounded.


A false dichotomy would be something of the kind, "either someone is rich, or someone is poor". It is false because while one cannot be rich and poor at the same time (if we define "rich" and "poor" correctly), someone can be neither poor nor rich.

But this has nothing to do with what is asked in the title of this question, which is whether saying that there can be no rich without the poor is a false dichotomy. This is an independent issue, and I would say that such proposition is not a false dichotomy. It isn't even a dichotomy.

Let's apply this to another relation. Let's say that the issue involves slavery: "there can be no slavemasters without there being slaves". The truth of it is obvious: if there are no slaves, no one can own slaves, and consequently no one can be a slavemaster. It is still true that "either one is a slave, or a slavemaster" is a false dichotomy: most of us, living in the 21st century, are neither slaves nor slavemasters.

This is not true for all kinds of relation: for instance, it is false to say that there would be no Black people if there were no White people (perhaps nobody would notice skin colours in that case, but that is a differente issue). So the issue is to determine whether the poor-rich divide is of the same kind as the slave-master one, or, on the the contrary, it is of the Black-White kind.

As material wealth is both limited and quantifiable - as opposed to melanin - it would seem that one can only amass a significant amount of material wealth if others don't, and so that if someone is rich, then others are at least comparatively poor. Unless we define wealth and poverty differently, of course.

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