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As I have previously divulged, people who don’t know what they are talking about–and assert that they do–aggravates me on a deep, you-are-personally-upsetting-the-Zen-of-the-universe-and-have-a-moral-obligation-to-stop kind of way.

So, in my unflapping quest to slowly right the errors of thinking I encounter around me, I offer the best explanation of why we often use the phrase “begging the question” incorrectly, and how to use it correctly. It comes from Michael D.C. Drout’s excellent course on rhetoric, A Way with Words.

Drout explains:

Petitio Principii (Begging the Question).This is one of my favorite fallacies. It
means “begging the question,” and it is wildly abused by newspaper columnists and others who do not know formal logic but do know that “begging the question” is not a good thing.
Begging the question does not mean “raising a new question”…
A good indicator of this fallacy is the use of an adjective or adverb to perform all the logical work in the sentence. When politicians campaign on the platform of eliminating “wasteful spending,” they are in fact begging the question. Everyone is against wasteful spending; there is no need to have an argument about it. The real question (which has been begged here) is which spending is wasteful and which is not.

Therefore the word “wasteful” begs the question by trying to get you to agree
that whatever spending the politician is against, you’re against too. You’ll see
that this fallacy is related to the enthymeme [an implied or assumed premise–a piece of the argument]: It assumes that you share the enthymeme with the speaker even when you don’t.
Again, the trick to catching this fallacy is to notice when the adjective or the
adverb is doing all the work. “Wasteful” spending; “unnecessary” military
force; “extreme” inequality; “tasteless” vulgarity; in every case the real argument is how to classify things into the different categories (wasteful versus important, necessary versus unnecessary, extreme versus unavoidable, tasteless versus challenging). So look for adjectives and adverbs in your opponents’ speeches and then, when you catch this error, say that “unfortunately, you’re guilty of the logical fallacy of petitio principii.” -P. 37-38 from the course book.

So, to review:

One Response

  1. Another good way to spot this fallacy is to determine if a politician is speaking. 🙂

    This fallacy has bothered me for a long time, but I didn’t know the official name of it, nor the proper use of the phrase “begging the question,” Thanks for enlightening me.

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