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What does “begging the question” mean?
In this essay I attempt to clarify what it means to say that an argument begs the question. One may think that it is a fairly straightforward matter but my analysis reveals that it isn't so.
“BTQ” means begging the question, or begs the question whichever is grammatically correct on the context.
The phrase “begs the question” in english
The phrase “begs the question” has at least two meanings in english. The first and perhaps most common meaning is that of raising an important question. As it is written on FallacyFiles.org:
The phrase "begs the question" has come to be used to mean "raises the question" or "suggests the question", as in "that begs the question" followed by the question supposedly begged. The following headlines are examples:
Warm Weather Begs the Question: To Water or Not to Water Yard Plants
Latest Internet Fracas Begs the Question: Who's Driving the Internet Bus?
Hot Holiday Begs Big Question: Can the Party Continue?
This is a confusing usage which is apparently based upon a literal misreading of the phrase "begs the question". It should be avoided, and must be distinguished from its use to refer to the fallacy.”1
The second meaning of “beg the question” is in the informal logical fallacy of begging the question. It is this meaning that this essay attempts to clarify.
So what does it mean to say that an argument BTQ? There are surprisingly many different answers from good sources. Below I quote many of the different definitions given, some by authorities and some not.
In an article entitled “Begging the Question” FallacyFiles.org writes:
“The phrase "begging the question", or "petitio principii" in Latin, refers to the "question" in a formal debate—that is, the issue being debated. In such a debate, one side may ask the other side to concede certain points in order to speed up the proceedings. To "beg" the question is to ask that the very point at issue be conceded, which is of course illegitimate. “2
“Any form of argument in which the conclusion occurs as one of the premisses, or a chain of arguments in which the final conclusion is a premiss of one of the earlier arguments in the chain. More generally, an argument begs the question when it assumes any controversial point not conceded by the other side.”3
Notice how vague the one mentioned in the first paragraph is. To the defense of FallacyFiles.org, we may note that that paragraph is entitled “Etymology”, and is perhaps not meant to actually explain clearly what it means to BTQ but only to explain how the etymology relates to the meaning of the term. The second paragraph is entitled “Exposition” and is clearly meant to explain the meaning of the term. However the paragraph features two independent definitions, a strict (which is a disjunction) and a general (or rather, broad) one.
In the article entitled “Bad Moves: Begging the question” butterfliesandwheels.com writes:
“Begging the question – assuming what needs to be argued for [...]”4
skepdic.com aka. The Skeptic's Dictionary
In an article entitled “begging the question” it is written on skepdic.com:
“Begging the question is what one does in an argument when one assumes what one claims to be proving.”5
And a bit later:
“If one's premises entail one's conclusion, and one's premises are questionable, one is said to beg the question.”6
Notice that these two definitions are not at all identical. Examples will show this later.
In an article entitled “Begging the question” it is written on Wikipedia.org:
“The fallacy of petitio principii, or "begging the question", is committed "when a proposition which requires proof is assumed without proof." More specifically, petitio principii refers to arguing for a conclusion that has already been assumed in the premise. The fallacy may be committed in various ways.
When the fallacy of begging the question is committed in a single step, it is sometimes called a hysteron proteron, as in the statement "Opium induces sleep because it has a soporific quality". Such fallacies may not be immediately obvious in English because the English language has so many synonyms; one way to beg the question is to make a statement first in concrete terms, then in abstract ones, or vice-versa. Another is to "bring forth a proposition expressed in words of Saxon origin, and give as a reason for it the very same proposition stated in words of Norman origin", as in this example: "To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole advantageous to the State, for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments."
When the fallacy of begging the question is committed in more than one step, it is sometimes referred to as circulus in probando or reasoning in a circle but incorrectly if we look at the definition Aristotle gave us in Prior Analytics.
"Begging the question" can also refer to making an argument in which the premise "is different from the conclusion ... but is controversial or questionable for the same reasons that typically might lead someone to question the conclusion."”7
“In informal situations, the term begging the question is often used in place of circular argument. In the formal context however, begging the question holds a different meaning. In its shortest form, circular reasoning is the basing of two conclusions by means of which there is demonstrated a reversed premise of the first argument. Begging the question does not require any such reversal.
Begging the question is similar to the Fallacy of many questions: a fallacy of technique that results from presenting evidence in support of a conclusion that is less likely to be accepted than merely asserting the conclusion. A specific form of this is reducing an assertion to an instance of a more general assertion which is no more known to be true than the more specific assertion:
* All intentional acts of killing human beings are morally wrong.
* The death penalty is an intentional act of killing a human being.
* Therefore the death penalty is wrong.
If the first premise is accepted as an axiom within some moral system or code, this reasoning is a cogent argument against the death penalty. If not, it is in fact a weaker argument than a mere assertion that the death penalty is wrong, since the first premise is stronger than the conclusion.”8
New York Times
In an article entitled “ON LANGUAGE; Take My Question Please!” it is written in New York Times:
“''This sentence fragment uses 'begs the question,' '' he writes, ''in the sense of a question that begs to be asked, usually because it is obvious to all. However, I am plagued by my logic course of some years ago, which taught me that begging the question is nothing of the kind. Rather, begging the question is a logically invalid form of argument that uses the point to be proven as part of the argument for its proof.''
Amen. Readers have been protesting this misuse of a term about a concept set down by Aristotle, a student of Plato Cacheris, in his book on logic written about 350 B.C. (Here comes mail on B.C.E.) His Greek term en archei aiteisthai was translated by the Romans as petitio principii, and rendered into English in 1581 as begging the question. In whatever language, it described the fallacy known as ''the assumption at the outset.''
In his 1988 book, ''Thinking Logically,'' Prof. James Freeman explains: ''An argument begs the question when the conclusion, in the same or different words, or a statement presupposing the conclusion, is introduced as a premise. The case for the conclusion ultimately depends on accepting the conclusion itself.''”9
Notice how it says that it is an invalid form of argument. But surely any argument that commits the strict fallacy of BTQ, that is, the conclusion is identical to a premise, is a valid argument. Why? Valid arguments are precisely those arguments where the premises logically imply the conclusion. Since any proposition implies itself [P⇒P], then any argument that BTQ in the strict sense is valid.
In an article entitled “Fallacy: Begging the Question” it is written on nizkor.org:
“Begging the Question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true. This sort of "reasoning" typically has the following form.
1. Premises in which the truth of the conclusion is claimed or the truth of the conclusion is assumed (either directly or indirectly).
2. Claim C (the conclusion) is true.
This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because simply assuming that the conclusion is true (directly or indirectly) in the premises does not constitute evidence for that conclusion. Obviously, simply assuming a claim is true does not serve as evidence for that claim. This is especially clear in particularly blatant cases: "X is true. The evidence for this claim is that X is true."
Some cases of question begging are fairly blatant, while others can be extremely subtle.”10
The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy
In an article entitled “Circular Reasoning” Robert Audi writes:
“circular reasoning, reasoning that, when traced backward from its conclusion, returns to that starting point, as one returns to a starting point when tracing a circle. The discussion of this topic by Richard Whatley (1787–1863) in his Logic (1826) sets a high standard of clarity and penetration. Logic textbooks often quote the following example from Whatley:
To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the State; for it is highly conducive to the interests of the Community, that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited, of expressing his sentiments.
This passage illustrates how circular reasoning is less obvious in a language, such as English, that, in Whatley’s words, is “abounding in synonymous expressions, which have no resemblance in sound, and no connection in etymology.” The premise and conclusion do not consist of just the same words in the same order, nor can logical or grammatical principles transform one into the other. Rather, they have the same propositional content: they say the same thing in different words. That is why appealing to one of them to provide reason for believing the other amounts to giving something as a reason for itself. Circular reasoning is often said to beg the question. ‘Begging the question’ and petitio principii are translations of a phrase in Aristotle connected with a game of formal disputation played in antiquity but not in recent times. The meanings of ‘question’ and ‘begging’ do not in any clear way determine the meaning of ‘question begging’. There is no simple argument form that all and only circular arguments have. It is not logic, in Whatley’s example above, that determines the identity of content between the premise and the conclusion. Some theorists propose rather more complicated formal or syntactic accounts of circularity. Others believe that any account of circular reasoning must refer to the beliefs of those who reason. Whether or not the following argument about articles in this dictionary is circular depends on why the first premise should be accepted:
(1) The article on inference contains no split infinitives.
(2) The other articles contain no split infinitives.
Therefore, (3) No article contains split infinitives.
Consider two cases. Case I: Although (2) supports (1) inductively, both (1) and (2) have solid outside support independent of any prior acceptance of (3). This reasoning is not circular. Case II: Someone who advances the argument accepts (1) or (2) or both, only because he believes (3). Such reasoning is circular, even though neither premise expresses just the same proposition as the conclusion. The question remains controversial whether, in explaining circularity, we should refer to the beliefs of individual reasoners or only to the surrounding circumstances. One purpose of reasoning is to increase the degree of reasonable confidence that one has in the truth of a conclusion. Presuming the truth of a conclusion in support of a premise thwarts this purpose, because the initial degree of reasonable confidence in the premise cannot then exceed the initial degree of reasonable confidence in the conclusion.”11
What can we gather from this?
There is consensus about a strict definition of BTQ which is identical to circular logic. This is defined as: An argument is circular iff one of the premises is identical to the conclusion. There is no consensus about a broad definition of BTQ. At best this is some intuitive notion. Further analysis could try to find a meaning appropriate for this broad sense. That task I will take up in a forthcoming essay.
9http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/26/magazine/on-language-take-my-question-please.html ON LANGUAGE; Take “My Question Please!”, By William Safire, Published: Sunday, July 26, 1998
11Robert Audi, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second edition, p. 177