Begging the Question

Life as an English major is hard. You spend years studying how to read books and along the way you refine your writing. You work on the nitty gritty of it all and become able to express your ideas clearly and intelligently and, along the way, you learn all sorts of little tools that help you along. You learn that a semicolon isn’t just a pretty button or the thing you get when you want a colon but forget to hit shift, but that it actually does something. You learn that commas don’t go where you’d take a breath and how to form proper sentences and how contractions work and all that stuff. Spending a year as a tutor I learned that the vast majority of people on the planet (most of the people I tutored were university students) don’t know what the hell they’re doing. I could spend years writing about punctuation but I won’t. No, today I’ll tackle a phrase that people misuse all the time, something that I find more frustrating than people who say “irregardless” or “I could care less” (when they mean they couldn’t, of course). The thing I’m tackling today is the logical fallacy known as “begging the question”.

I think “begging the question” is great to discuss because it sounds like something it isn’t and, unlike so many other commonplace mistakes people make in writing or speaking, it is a fairly complex thing. Let’s hit it:

“begging the question” is a logical fallacy in which an idea or statement is made which uses itself or its own premise as proof of that statement. A simplistic example would be to say that there are so many people in prison because there are so many criminals. The evidence and the claim are more or less the same thing and the one presupposes the other. Here are some more examples:

He is stupid because he isn’t smart.
Freedom of speech is important because being able to speak freely is important.
She is attractive because of how beautiful she is.
Euthanasia is ethical because ending someone’s suffering is the right thing to do.
God exists because the Bible says he does and God wrote the Bible.
Murder is justifiable when it is done for the right reasons.

Now, the thing about begging the question is this: while it is a logical fallacy, what is being claimed isn’t always fallacious, but the way they’re being argued is. There are some ethical reasons for euthanasia, but the above one isn’t because the premise and the claim are the same thing: euthanasia is ethical because euthanasia(/”ending someone’s suffering”) is the right thing to do (/”ethical”). Often a step might be missing in the claim, for example: euthanasia is wrong because murder is wrong. The argument contains a secondary claim which is that euthanasia is murder, which while it might or might not be true, is a claim that is being implicitly made within the larger argument.

Freedom of speech is, I think, a right that we can all (mostly) agree is (mostly) a good thing, but arguing for it on the virtue of itself is a bunk argument. If you look, at its core begging the question is akin to saying “x is y because x is y”; there is very little variation. Synonyms are used, like attractive instead of beautiful or stupid instead of not smart, but that’s typically the only difference.

That’s what begging the question is, essentially. It’s rarely used in the simplistic ways I used it above, but it is used fairly often by the media and by politicians and so on in attempting to sell an idea; something is important because it’s important. It’s a garbage argument that is used fairly often.

While the fallacy is used fairly often, the name for it is abused just as often. For some reason (probably because we rarely use “beg” in one of its more obscure forms, which is to “dodge or evade” or “to take for granted without proof”) “beg” is often used as a synonym for “raise”. Earlier this month the Edmonton Journal had an article that was titled: “JPM’s $2B loss begs a question — Is the biggest bank in the U.S. too big?” (to the Edmonton Journal’s credit, the opening paragraph — which was more or less the same as the title — used “raises” instead of “begs”). JPMorgan’s $2B loss does not beg that question (as very few things beg themselves), not at all.  Raising a question isn’t a bad thing but begging one is.

Another example posted just yesterday from the Australian Times (which, like Australia itself, clearly doesn’t understand grammar and is awful) is entitled “UK Summer Begs the Question: Why Can’t Australia Be Just Like the UK?”. The premise is essentially that Australia likes beer but Australians can’t drink on beaches, unlike the English, who can do so with impunity. He argues that if the UK can handle it, so can Australia. What’s hilarious, of course, is that it isn’t the UK summer that begs the question, it’s the author himself; drinking on beaches in Australia is ok because drinking on beaches in the UK is ok. I for one think that laws against drinking in public are mostly silly and that society’s fear of alcohol is getting more and more out of hand, but that’s not the point here — the point is the guy’s argument is fallacious and, even more importantly, that he misused the term “beg the question” in the first place.

Stupid Aussies.

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