Welcome back to The Philosopher’s Lexicon. My primary goal in this series is to explore common philosophical vocabulary, hopefully transforming these words from useless jargon into meaningful terms. My secondary goal is to highlight how contentious some of these terms can be – especially those which seem obvious. These definitions will not be comprehensive by any means, so please feel free to add your own understanding of each term as we go.
“Begging the question” is the one of the primary logical fallacies found in prose-driven arguments. You’ll often find it in a list containing reference to “ad hominem” (which means to attack the person you’re arguing against instead of their reasoning), “red herrings” (adding irrelevant details to confuse and derail an argument), and many others. While “begging the question” is one of the most popularly invoked fallacies, it’s so often misused in conversation that I’m almost willing to admit that it has a colloquial evil twin which is essentially its idiomatic opposite.
What “begging the question” does mean, technically speaking, is that the conclusion of an argument depends upon a premise which already assumes the truth of the conclusion. Effectively, the conclusion of the argument is one of the given premises. It’s got some very close cousins among the fallacies: circular argument, the vicious circle, petitio principii, and also some more formal fallacies, like affirming the consequent and assuming the antecedent.
It’s an easy fallacy to commit, as far as fallacies go, because it’s not always obvious, and because, strictly speaking, circular reasoning can be deductively valid when used in terms of axiomatic definitions. One example of a valid circle is Kant’s categorical imperative: If one is to be moral (that is, act according to a universal standard that ensures the free rationality of all human beings), then one may only act in such a way that his/her maxim can become a universal law without incurring any logical conflicts. In this case, circular reasoning is exactly what we’re looking for – anything that cannot hold up such a circle is clearly immoral. Of course, Kant is fully aware that in real life people break this axiom all the time; his logical test is designed to determine whether it could ever be said to be moral to do so and keep our circular axiom intact, not whether it is likely that people will do so, whether it is in our best interests to do so given the empirical evidence, or if our determination has any use outside of the world of purely analytic truths and logical possibility.
“Begging the question” becomes fallacious when we attempt to prove anything outside of an axiom, as we do in most arguments, and in most applications of axiomatically valid definitions. A common example of this is shown on the The Nizkor Project website:
Bill: “God must exist.”
Jill: “How do you know.”
Bill: “Because the Bible says so.”
Jill: “Why should I believe the Bible?”
Bill: “Because the Bible was written by God.”
As a statement of faith in the Bible as axiomatically definitive, this might work for an individual who already has that faith, but it is in no way an argument of any kind, much less a successful one.
What “begging the question” does not mean is “to raise the question” or to “suggest” another question (for good or ill in a line of reasoning). However, this is pretty much how it gets used on a regular basis. Generally speaking, I tend to side with the colloquial and idiomatic use of terms and phrases. Languages change and evolve all the time, and the rules really only exist in order to foster clarity in communication. But in this case, I think it’s important to consider keeping a distinction.
For one, there’s the obvious issue of clarity. Because these two very different meanings can be inserted into an argument or bit of prose under the exact same grammatical construction, context is often insufficient to show you the distinction. In fact – and this brings me to my second reason for insisting on the technical definition of the phrase – context clues often favor the latter, incorrect meaning even when the author intended the former technical definition. In this case, the misuse of the term doesn’t tend to cause confusion in its own message – it causes confusion where the term is used correctly.
To be fair, however, the phrase “begging the question” is thought to have been coined as a mistranslation of the original latin, Petitio princippii, which means “assuming the initial principle” – not “petitioning the principle”.
While this might be argument for allowing the meaning of the phrase to change, I fear that in losing the easy-to-reference version of the fallacy, we’ll stop thinking about it as often. How we speak and the language we use plays an important role in defining how we think, and if we lose this casual term, we risk losing the ability to casually recognize this fallacy when we see. “Begging the question” has the benefit of broadness – circular reasoning can be good, while begging the question cannot, circular arguments are easy to spot while begging the question can be deviously inserted in ways that aren’t obviously circuitous, and the fancier, more archaic versions (The Vicious Circle, petitio princippi) undermine the casual informality of this fallacy, which is important because the way we generally commit is generally informal in nature.
Perhaps a better way to respond to this confusion would be to coin a new informal title for this fallacy. I think that something like “assuming the question” would be a good fit. It’s close enough to “begging the question” to facilitate an easy transition, and perhaps better evokes true meaning of the fallacy while avoiding the complications and intimidating formalities of terms like “circular reasoning”, “circular argument”, and “assuming the antecedent”.
But this is perhaps a controversial position.
Thanks for tuning in to The Philosopher’s Lexicon. Check back in a couple of weeks for the next entry into the Lexicon: argument.