Begs the Question

Nobody actually knows what this mean.

I figure I better write about this somewhere because I keep trying to stick this in other places.  In other words, I’m getting it off my chest.  I will also tell you a little bit about the concept of fallacies, which is a good way to know how to point out when someone is being inconsistent in an argument. (OK mainly useful with politicians, who are so often inconsistent…)

Do you know what Begs the Question means?

Many people use it to mean, “raises the question.”  But that is not what begs the question was supposed to mean.  Begs the Question is the category title of a particular type of fallacy.

In good arguments, there is a premise (what I assert to be true) and an argument (how I prove it to be true).  When you have a bad argument, one that has faulty logic, that argument is said to contain a fallacy.  There are something like forty different types of fallacies.  One of these types is “Begs the Question.”  This refers to someone who uses their premise to prove their premise.

An example of a bad argument, one that begs the question:

Promiscuity is bad because it results in the spread of loose morals.

The premise is that promiscuity is bad.  The argument is that this is because it results in the spread loose morals.  By definition promiscuity is loose sexual morals.  The person has just argued that: the act of engaging in loose morals is bad because then you have more loose morals.

Or even more simply: Doing A is bad because then you get more A…
Which is like totally bad…

In other words you’d have to accept that A is bad, before the fact that you get more A can prove your argument.  The speaker is trying to use his premise to prove his premise.

The useful thing about fallacies is that it’s a way to decide whether you should be persuaded about an argument, and a system that helps you notice when someone’s arguments are faulty.

For instance, another fallacy is called the ‘slippery slope’ fallacy.  This one is a little misunderstood because we tend to say ‘it’s a slippery slope’ to mean that once we do this one thing it will lead the next thing.  But when the slippery slope is a fallacy, it points to an argument that says that if the first thing happens then something un-provable horrible will happen, such as…the end of the world and things like that.

Promiscuity is bad because it will lead to the downfall of our society.

Perhaps it could lead to the end of the world, but how do you prove that?  Do you have any data or verified facts? That argument fails to prove the premise that promiscuity is bad.  The slippery slope argument says A is bad because it results in the end of the world or whatever horrible thing you can think of, and tries to convince through fear.  If you can’t prove that b follows a, then you have a slippery slope fallacy.

If you call something a fallacy you are saying “that does not prove your point because your argument is faulty.”

What would a good argument look like?

Promiscuity is bad because having multiple sexual partners increases the rate of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

Notice how I defined in a specific way what I mean by promiscuity, and gave a negative consequence that has some basis in proven facts?  At this point you have a decent argument and now you can decide if you should be persuaded.  Maybe you’d dismiss the consequence as bad enough to worry about.  But the argument is sound.

As some of you may have noticed we have a lot of speakers in the news and media arguing points without facts.  If you find fallacies interesting you can find out what to call the type of thing these speakers are doing wrong

As for the term ‘begging the question’, I think it has lost any real usefulness for what it was originally intended because of how often its misused.  People have gotten around this by saying “he (or she) is question begging.”  Now when you hear the term ‘question begging’ you’ll know what it means.  And I’ve gotten this off my chest… whew.

The link to the list of fallacies:

Fallacy description on The Writing Center

Lauren Torres – Lansing, IL
Copyright © 2011 [Lauren Torres]. All rights reserved
Do not reproduce with out express written permission.

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Notes on This article:

  1. My premise, ‘promiscuity is bad’ is not a well written one.  Bad how?  Bad is too general to allow verification, as it is more a matter of opinion.  However fallacies are about the argument, and not the premise, so I wanted to keep the premise simple.
  2. The slippery slope fallacy does not have to involve terrible consequences to be labeled a slippery slope.  The error is more about the fact that you have asserted that b follows a without proof.  Its easier to see this fallacy if you have an example that is more unlikely.  However, there can be subtle instances of this fallacy, where it does seem like b could happen because of a.


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