This is part three of a 12 week series where, on Mondays, I plan to explore the tactics of verbal cheap shot artists – people who can’t, or won’t use valid arguments to present their case, but instead resort to verbal cheap shots. To make sure you don’t miss a single article, be sure and sign up for my RSS feed or subscribe by email (both are free!) so you can get a new article each day!
In today’s modern usage, “begging the question” has been distorted to mean “raising the question,” or to mean that a certain question should be addressed. For the purpose of this article, however, I’m referring to the classic “begging the question” first identified in Aristotle’s Prior Analytics II. Later when his work was translated into Latin, it was called Petitio Principii (petitio: petition, request; principii, genitive of principium: beginning, basis, premise of an argument), literally meaning "a request for the beginning or premise." That is, the premise depends on the truth of the very matter in question.
Begging the question is a type of fallacy stemming from deductive reasoning where the argument to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises. It’s like an optical illusion because it uses its own argument to prove its own argument! For example: "Corporations can’t be trusted. Only an untrustworthy group of people would organize itself as a corporation; the fact that corporations are untrustworthy is proof. Therefore corporations cannot be trusted." This argument is worthless because it relies on its own assumption (in this case, "corporations are untrustworthy") to support its central premise. Essentially, the argument assumes that its central point is already proven, and uses this in support of itself.
Another example here is an attempt to prove that my financial advisor is telling the truth:
- Suppose my financial advisor is not lying when she speaks.
- My financial advisor is speaking.
- Therefore, my financial advisor is telling the truth.
These statements are logical, but they do nothing to convince one of the truthfulness of the speaker. The problem is that in seeking to prove my financial advisor’s truthfulness, the speaker asks his audience to assume that she is telling the truth, so this actually proves "If my financial advisor is not lying, then my financial advisor is telling the truth."
In mathematics, when A equals B and B equals C then A equals C, but we’re not dealing with math. We’re dealing with reasoning and we need to throw our biases and suppositions out the window in favor of unbiased evidence.
- “Shakespeare’s plays are known around the world because he is so famous.”
- “He cheated on the chemistry test because he is unscrupulous.”
- “Passing a tax cut is just welfare for the rich.”
- “No one eats there anymore because it’s too crowded.”
Formally speaking, the fallacy of Petitio Principii has the following structure. For some proposition X,
- X implies Y,
- suppose X,
- therefore, Y.
The verbal presentation of the fallacy is rarely this easy to spot, but is usually cloaked in synonyms and sensible sounding assumptions like the argument trying to prove my financial advisor is telling the truth.
When you’re faced with a begging the question fallacy, realize that the person making the argument probably believes that X does imply Y. Your job is to critically evaluate whether it does or not and whether the final argument actually makes sense.