Logic 101: I’m Begging You, Please Stop Begging the Question!

Back in 2009 I wrote this post for a now defunct personal blog. However, in light of the purpose for this site, my post on the fallacy of begging the question serves as the first post in a series titled Logic 101.

Since I  began to study philosophy, and more specifically, since I’ve taken and taught logic, I’ve noticed that one particular philosophical phrase is thrown around quite a bit today in discussions about current events or issues – “begging the question.” Giving others the benefit of the doubt, this phrase is used in the attempt to sound logically sound and rational.  I hear it on the airwaves, especially from both Mikes on ESPN’s Mike and Mike (who liked to throw around this term quite often when their show was around) and see the love affair with “begging the question” on the printed page (physically and digitally on the Web).

The way I this phrase is used is when an individual brings up the action(s) or decision(s) of a person, group or entity and then proceeds to state, “Well, this begs the question(s) …”  In other words, this person, group or entity, by virtue of their action(s) or decision(s), raises a question or questions to be considered for whatever reason.

For example, in her article titled on www.washingtontimes.com (“The Ghost of Geithner”), Tara Wall opens her article

Will the real Timothy Geithner please stand up?  Is what we’ve seen thus far the true Geithner, his disembodied spirit, or is he in fact a disembodied spirit?  I’m going with the apparition.  Which begs the question, is he ghost of economies past, present or future?

Likewise, in Cedric Meyer’s article, “Tigers limp into SEC tourney” on www.tigerweekly.com, Meyer raises concern over LSU’s season-ending two game skid and lack of an interior presence.  In regards to LSU’s last game, Meyer states: “Against Auburn, the Tigers looked like a team going through the motions. Which begs the question: should the Tigers “tank” the SEC tournament?  One just needs to Google “begs the question” to find an untold number of articles containing this phrase.  But, is this particular use of “begging the question” correct?  I would say no, that this use is far from its intended meaning and use.

According to Patrick J. Hurley, author of A Concise Introduction to Logic, “begging the question,” or petitio principii (the Latin phrase for “begging the question”), is a logical fallacy in which

the arguer creates the illusion that inadequate premises provide adequate support for the conclusion by leaving out a possibly false (shaky) key premise, by restating a possibly false premise as the conclusion, or by reasoning in a circle … The actual support of support for the conclusion is not apparent, and so the argument is said to beg the question (145).

According to this definition, then, this phrase refers to an argument in which the truthfulness of the conclusion is assumed and even used as support for itself.  For example, in the following argument, the arguer restates a possibly false premise as his conclusion: “People who lack humility have no sense of beauty because everyone who has a sense of beauty also has humility” (Hurley, 159).  In another example, the arguer leaves out what Hurley calls “a possibly false (shaky) key premise”: “Of course abortion is permissible.  After all, a woman has a right to do as she pleases with her own body” (Hurley, 161)  Now, questions are raised when one commits the fallacy of petitio principii, questions regarding the truthfulness of the assumption and of the support necessary to prove the conclusion true or false.  However, as commonly used in the media and everywhere else, begging the question does not mean that an issue, decision or action merely raises questions for consideration.

Daily vernacular changes over time – words that mean one thing today may not have had the same meaning in the past. I can’t help but think that “begging the question” is undergoing such a change in everyday usage. As such, when you hear this phrase, consider the following:

  1. Is the context in which the phrase occurs an argument?
    1. If so, then does the individual rightly note a logical fallacy?
      1. You are safe to correct an individual if the discussion is philosophical in nature, or if the context is one when argument and analysis is occurring. But, speak the truth in love; if you’re overbearing in your correction, you’ll be tuned out.
    2. If not, the individual may intend “begging the question” to mean “raises the question.”
      1. If you’re like me, you want to correct every incorrect usage of a philosophical term. However, most people don’t care to be corrected on something that is not very important to them. As such, if the context is not one of an argument or philosophical discussion, let the incorrect use of “begging the question” slide by.

In all honesty, how one uses “begging the question” is not a life-and-death situation. Probably the only people who are concerned about its use are philosophers like me. However, being aware of how one uses the phrase can help you in understanding and analyzing what another says. And, it helps you to avoid going off into an unnecessary correction or discussion, allowing the dialogue to stay on topic and thus, fruitful.

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