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What Does It Mean to “Beg the Question”?
Pardon Me—May I Beg Your Question?
Often I hear newscasters say something like this: “Which begs the question—why was the senator naked in the first place?”
Such a statement causes my ears to prick up—and not just because of a naked legislator.
Nearly as common as the impropriety of government officials is the improper use of the phrase “to beg the question.” For years I have tried to correct this popular misuse of the phrase.
Logical Fallacies: The Formal Type
In English composition, rhetoric, and speech classes, students learn that they must mind their logic; that is, the conclusion of their essay or speech must indeed follow from the reasons or premises that they provide. The arguments they present should be not only valid (the premises logically imply the conclusion) but also sound (the argument is valid, and all the claims are true).
Often an argument appears sound, but upon closer inspection it emerges as flawed: something is wonky about its logic or mechanics.
The person who first detailed what can go wrong in our reasoning and how we can fix it was the great ancient Greek philosopher—and perhaps the all-time greatest philosopher—Aristotle. Aristotle wrote on many topics; in fact, more of his works have survived than that of any other ancient thinker.
Among his most important contributions are his discussions of logical fallacies. Fallacious reasoning occurs when we offer an argument that may seem convincing but contains a hidden flaw. In logic class, we learn about formal fallacies—those that are flawed because of the form in which they are presented regardless of the topic being discussed.
Consider this example:
1. If A is true, then B is true.
2. A is true.
3. Therefore, B is true.
If we accept ‘1’ and ‘2,’ then we are logically compelled to accept ‘3.’ We don’t even have to know what ‘A’ and ‘B’ represent because the very form of the argument makes it consistently valid.
Here’s an illustration: If it rains, I’ll get wet. It rains. Therefore, I’ll get wet. Looks good, right? Right. (Thanks to Medieval monks who labelled all these things in Latin, it has the fancy name of modus ponens, which sounds like a Harry Potter incantation.)
Now consider this similar example:
1. If A is true, then B is true.
2. A is not true.
3. Therefore, B is not true.
Looks good, right? Wrong.
An argument of this form is known as “denying the antecedent”; it is a formal fallacy and thereby always invalid. Here’s an illustration: If it rains, I’ll get wet. It does not rain. Does it follow that I’ll not get wet? No, because I could get wet in some other manner—say, getting caught in in someone’s yard when the sprinkler system comes on.
Logical Fallacies: The Informal Type
Unlike formal fallacies, informal fallacies are flawed not because of their formal structure but because of the meanings of the words.
Perhaps the best known informal fallacy is ad hominem (from Latin “to the man”). Here’s an example: A panelist argues in favor of capital punishment. An opposing panelist says to the audience, “Are you going to believe him? He abandoned his wife and children for a younger woman.” Perhaps the first speaker in fact did so, and perhaps his behavior is a good reason to dislike him, but his treatment of his family has nothing to do with the validity or soundness of his argument on capital punishment.
Begging the question is another of those informal fallacies. Aristotle calls this one, in ancient Greek, “asking for the first thing.” Our peculiar phrase “to beg the question” comes from its Medieval Latin label, petitio principii, or to ask for the principle or beginning. This expression came to mean to assume the first premise.
A better way to put it for our modern ears is that to beg the question is to assume the conclusion in the reasons given for why one should accept the conclusion. It is the attempt to support a claim with a premise that itself presupposes the truth of that claim. It is a form of circular reasoning.
Here’s an example:
Andy: Why do you believe in God?
Barney: Because the Bible says God exists.
Andy: Why do you believe what the Bible says?
Barney: Because the Bible is the word of God!
Why is Barney’s argument a bad one? God may very well exist, and the Bible may very well be the word of God, but to say that the Bible is the word of God is to assume the existence of God. Barney needs to come up with a better argument.
Here is another example, this one involving kids preparing to play baseball:
Lance: I get to be the pitcher.
Guin: Why do you get to be the pitcher?
Lance: Because I have the ball.
Guin: Why do you have the ball?
Lance: Because the pitcher needs the ball! I can’t pitch if I don’t have the ball.
Surely Guin would not be convinced by Lance’s reasons, and she would correctly accuse him of “begging the question.”
What They Really Mean by “Begging the Question”
When people say that something “begs the question,” typically they really mean that it raises or forces or urges a question or that a particular question (“Why was the senator naked?” for example) is just begging to be asked.
Years ago, the misuse of the phrases troubled me so much that I wrote dozens of letters to TV and radio newscasters pointing out their blunders and supplying them with the correct phrases.
You can guess how many responses I received.
Age has mellowed me, and I may have to accept that in regard to changing this widespread error, the ship has probably sailed. But even if we allow newscasters to hijack the term, we need to understand that assuming one’s conclusion in one’s premises is an illogical—and weak—way to make a point, and we need to be on the alert when others employ poor logic to convince us of something they are desperate for us to believe.
Dr. Ron Cooper is Senior Professor of Philosophy at the College of Central Florida in Ocala, Florida. Also a novelist and poet, he recently won a Florida book award for his latest novel, All My Sins Remembered (https://www.goliadreview.com/the-catalog). In addition, he is an amateur bluegrass musician who challenges anyone to play and sing worse than he does. For more on fallacious reasoning, he recommends Nonsense: Red herrings, Straw Men, and Sacred Cows by Robert J. Gula.