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Ethics Explainer – begging the question

by The Ethics Centre
04 May 2016
Begging the question is when you use the point you’re trying to prove as an argument to prove that very same point. It’s also called circular reasoning and it's a logical fallacy, which means you shouldn't trust the conclusions that come from question-begging arguments, which look like this:
1. Steve is a reliable person because I trust him.
2. Therefore, you should trust Steve.
Begging the question makes an argument unsound. The structure of the argument is valid but the conclusion is built into the premises. When we say we should trust someone, all we mean is that they are reliable.

The argument asserts Steve is reliable because I trust him. That’s like saying ‘Steve is loved because I love him’ – they’re two ways of saying the same thing. As a logical argument, here’s how it looks.
1. Steve is X because X.
Therefore you should X because X.
Begging the question is a fallacy because there’s no argument to move from Steve’s trustworthiness. The premise and the conclusion make the same claim. It assumes the conclusion is true at the beginning of the argument instead of proving the conclusion is true at the end of the argument. So even if Steve is trustworthy, this isn’t a good argument for proving it to other people.

We could change the argument to stop it from begging the question:
1. Reliable people can be trusted.
2. Steve is a reliable person.
3. Therefore, Steve can be trusted by any person.
4. You are a person.
5. Therefore, you should trust Steve.
Here’s another related example:

‘If we accept your argument that people who download movies should be put in jail, who should provide the education they receive while they’re in prison?’

This is called a leading question. It sneaks in a claim that needs to be argued for in the form of a question.

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Radio interviews, talk shows conversations in a range of different contexts beg the question by asking leading questions that try to box you in to a certain answer. Being able to spot a leading question is useful – it allows us to be critical not only of other people’s arguments, but the way they frame the question.

In this example, the claim is that people who are put in jail should receive education programs. That might be true, it might not, but because it forces the answer to go in a certain direction, it is an example of begging the question.

It’s worth noting that sometimes in English, people say ‘this begs the question that’ when they actually mean ‘this raises the question that’. In this context, they’re usually not referring to the logical fallacy.

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