Begging the Question

(Petitio principii)

A circular argument, which uses its conclusion as part of the argument to prove its conclusion, sometimes in light disguise.B3 For instance:

QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION: Would the use of biotechnology help to feed the world?

ANSWER: Yes. Why? Because, if we don’t use it, many will starve.

That discussion is evidently getting nowhere; the person who argues in this way may or may not be aware that the assumption which she implies is already agreed is what the argument is actually about. More examples: There is no need to worry about oil depletion. Why? Because the people who worry about oil supplies are being alarmist. Why do you say that? Because there is no need to worry about oil depletion. Or: We must take our place at the heart of Europe. Why? Because, if we don’t we will be missing an opportunity. What opportunity? The opportunity to take our place at the heart of Europe. Or: Christopher Marlowe survived his attempted murder and lived to write Shakespeare’s plays for him. How come? Well, he escaped out of the back door and went to live in Spain. How do you know? Well, if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to write Shakespeare’s plays for him, would he?

It is possible to deliver a speech which consists almost entirely of sentences which beg the question, especially during the passages designed for rhetorical arousal:

We now have an opportunity to truly transform our system into a world class system fit for the 21st century. . . . There is a real appetite out there to embrace change, to improve our system and to end the two-tier culture which brands so many of our young people as failures at the age of 11.

I relish the challenge of transforming our outdated and unequal education system into a modern and flexible one that places equality of opportunity for each and every child at its core.

I believe such a system will not only continue to deliver academic excellence for the few but can deliver it for all.

Caitríona Ruane, Education Secretary, presenting the Northern Ireland Government’s decision to abolish grammar schools, 2007.B4

Begging the Question is common, but there is so little awareness of it that the phrase is generally taken to mean no more than “this raises the question whether . . .”, leaving the fallacy without even a reliable name. Its career as a destroyer of argument, however, is unchecked, and it can lurk in single words (“anachronism”, “modern”, “Luddite”, “scientific”, “accessible”, “elitist”, “reality”, “stereotype”). Even the tone of voice, if weary enough, can suggest, deceptively, that the matter is too obvious to need explanation.

Here is an example from the debate about globalisation:

The former head of the World Trade Organisation, Mike Moore, writes persuasively about the benefits of free trade. He shows that the lowering of trade barriers has stimulated growth, that the countries that have been the most open to trade have enjoyed the most economic progress and the greatest rise in the incomes of the poor. And, as former prime minister of New Zealand, he has the experience of making that country a pioneer of free-market agriculture, with benign effects across the economy. How, then, can there be doubts when he argues that the anti-globalisation movement, if successful, would bring catastrophic consequences, not just for the poor in developing economies, but for all of us? Can Mr. Moore and the anti-globalisation protestors really be talking about the same thing?B5

The opposing argument states that globalisation and free trade, in opening up small-scale production in the non-industrialised countries to competition from multinationals, leads to unemployment and dispossession. It makes agriculture dependent on imported energy; it devastates soils, ecosystems and communities; it raises incomes in part by destroying local subsistence and forcing people into the cash economy; it is supported by the governments of the affected countries not least because of the debts into which they have been lured. Food security, with higher overall yields and greater diversity, less damage to the soil and higher real local incomes, would be more fruitfully sought by helping farmers to make the best use of their own skills, applied to local conditions.B6

Both sides beg the question: they are each correct if their premises are accepted: if the priority is to expand world trade, to push ahead with the global market, Mr. Moore’s conclusions naturally follow; if it is to build on the resilience of communities, to protect them from the turbulence of the global market, and to improve their food security, his critics are correct. The begged question is the one thing they should actually be talking about.B7

 

Related entries:

Different Premises, Constructivism, Rationalism, Ideology, Internal Evidence, Tautology.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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