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Begging the Question

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Begging the Question

One of the most frequently misused terms in the English language, begging the question probably should have been given a different name. Alas, to this day the logical fallacy is called “begging the question,” and it’s just something everyone has to deal with. “It begs the question” does not mean “I have a question,” which it is commonly and incorrectly thought to mean. It’s trickier than that.

Begging the Question Definition

The real definition of begging the question is as follows.

Begging the question occurs when an arguer assumes that an argument is true in order to justify a conclusion.

Here’s what that looks like.

Because the population of lions worldwide has soared beyond 500,000, they should be removed from the list of threatened animals.

This conclusion probably sounds off, because it is. The question begged here is: has the population of lions worldwide really reached that height (therefore justifying this conclusion)?

If something begs the question, what you are actually asking is, “Is the premise of that argument actually true?” In the case of our lions example, the premise is not true. This is how you begin to understand the fallacy of begging the question.

The Fallacy of Begging the Question

To understand the fallacy of begging the question, you first need to understand validity and soundness.

For an argument to be valid, its conclusion must simply follow from the premises. For the argument to be sound, it must be both valid and true.

Because the population of lions worldwide has soared beyond 500,000, they should be removed from the list of threatened animals.

This argument is valid because the conclusion (that lions should be removed from the list of threatened animals) follows from the premise (that the population of lions worldwide has soared beyond 500,000). However, this argument is not sound, because the premise is not true. In fact there are only about 25,000 lions worldwide as of 2019!1

Begging the question Lion StudySmarterFig. 1 - In this case, not a pride but a "premise" of lions.

Rather than verifying the truthfulness of a premise, an arguer who begs the question assumes that premise to be true in order to draw their conclusion. However, this is faulty. If a premise is not proven to be credible, then it cannot be used to generate a valid conclusion. Thus, begging the question is a logical fallacy.

If you don’t know whether or not your premise is sound, and you use that premise to draw a conclusion, then you are committing the logical fallacy of begging the question.

Why do people beg the question? There is no single cause. Often though, it is out of ignorance. People make assumptions, then draw conclusions based on those untrue assumptions.

Begging the Question in a Sentence

With the fallacy out of the way for now, there’s the other part of “begging the question” that needs to be addressed, which is its usage.

Here’s an example of an exchange where someone uses “it begs the question” incorrectly in a sentence.

In the film, Capashen flies the skyship over the castle’s defenses. It begs the question, did he know he’d get hit by the ballista?

Think back to our phrase that helps us understand begging the question, “Is that premise really true?” In this example there is no premise, no assumption being made. Here, “it begs the question” just means, “The question is.” In order to beg the question, there needs to be a line of reasoning to follow.

Here is how you would use “it begs the question” correctly in a sentence.

Capashen said that because the ballista can’t hit the airship, he will take the airship over the ballista on the castle walls. It begs the question, though, can a ballista hit the airship?

Here, there is a line of reasoning that includes the premise, “because the ballista can’t hit the airship,” as well as a conclusion, “take the airship over the castle walls.” Because the soundness of the premise is assumed, it begs the question.

Another reason that "begging the question" is commonly misused is because, well, the logical fallacy was never meant to be called begging the question. It's a bad name for obvious reasons, but where did that name come from? There's quite a line of mistranslations. The original Greek is τὸ ἐξ ἀρχῆς, or "asking for the first thing." In medieval times, this was then mistranslated into Latin as petitio principii, which means "assume the conclusion." Finally then, in more modern times, this was mistranslated again into English as "begging the question." No brownie points for the translation team on that one!

Begging the Question Example (Essay)

Now that you understand the fallacy of begging the question and how to use it on the fly, it’s important to explore how it might crop up in your essay. Here’s an example of an essay passage that begs the question.

The narrative is tangled and winding. In the story, love is the most dangerous emotion experienced by the characters. As such, it’s no surprise that at the end of the story the outbursts of anger exhibited by Nicol feel unimportant. The other king “merely shook his head,” when Nicol made his tirade on page 302. It also comes as no surprise that Nicol’s lover spurns him when he approaches her on page 334, the second to last page. She says, “We cannot learn to love now; that dove has flown.” The danger of love stifles her affections."

Can you identify it?

It begs the question, is love really so dangerous in this story?

This essay passage certainly assumes that it is. The essayist judges other passages as “unimportant” based on that assumption, and it explains why Nicol’s lover spurns him based on that assumption. However, this passage contains no support for that premise whatsoever.

Begging the question Heart StudySmarterFig. 2 - Explain the story, explain your premise.

To improve upon this, the author needs to establish “the danger of love” in the story. For instance, the writer of this passage could describe the painful fates of the early romances, the arguments that characters have, and dialogue that indicates how the characters negatively perceive romantic love.

With this information in hand, the author could then explain why things happen the way they do toward the end of the book.

Here’s a checklist to help you not make the mistake.

  1. Don’t skip discussing the setup of a story you analyze. If you don’t connect the dots from the start, you are making assumptions.

  2. Analyze the causal relationships in the story. The better you understand why things happen in a story, the better you can explain that story.

  3. Follow a line of reasoning. Make sure that any conclusion you draw has a sound premise.

  4. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Take a deep breath and manage your time.

The Difference Between Circular Reasoning and Begging the Question

As you probably know, begging the question is only one of many rhetorical fallacies (logical fallacies). Some of these fallacies might appear similar at first, such as begging the question and circular reasoning. However, there are differences.

Begging the question is assuming that a premise is true in order to justify an argument.

Because Urza is too old to travel, he shouldn’t.

The begged question is, “is Urza really too old to travel?”

On the other hand, circular reasoning is justifying a premise with itself.

Urza is too old to travel. Why, you ask? He’s over 65. That’s important because, when you’re over 65, you are too old to travel.

In this example, “Urza is too old to travel” is ultimately justified by that same premise, that “Urza is too old to travel.”

That said, circular reasoning is a kind of begging the question, because “Urza is too old to travel” is assumed to be truthful and thus begs the question, Is Urza too old to travel?” However, in practice, you will find that most examples of begging the question are not circular, and appear more like the ones earlier discussed.

Begging the question is also not the same as a loaded question (a complex question). When you beg the question, you are drawing a conclusion. When you pose a loaded question, you are asking a question. A loaded question is as follows: "Why didn't you tell me you were an axe murderer?" This question cannot be answered without denying the soundness of the question itself; otherwise you will always sound like an axe murderer, because the "fact that you are an axe murderer" is presupposed in the question.

Begging the Question - Key takeaways

  • Begging the question occurs when an arguer assumes that an argument is true in order to justify a conclusion.
  • A begged question follows a valid but not sound line of reasoning.
  • To avoid begging the question, follow a line of reasoning.
  • To avoid begging the question, don't get ahead of yourself.
  • Unlike begging the question, circular reasoning is justifying a premise with itself.

1 Olivia Prentzel, Where lions once ruled, they are now quietly disappearing, 2019.

Frequently Asked Questions about Begging the Question

Begging the question occurs when an arguer assumes that an argument is true in order to justify a conclusion.

Yes.

When you beg the question, you are drawing a conclusion. When you pose a loaded question, you are asking a question.

Yes.

There is no single cause. Often though, it is out of ignorance. People make assumptions, then draw conclusions based on those untrue assumptions.

Final Begging the Question Quiz

Question

Begging the question occurs when an arguer assumes that an argument is _____ in order to justify a conclusion.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

If something _____, what you are actually asking is, “Is the premise of that argument actually true?” 

Show answer

Answer

Begs the question

Show question

Question

"A begged question follows from the premise."


True or false?

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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

What does it mean to be a "valid" argument, logically?

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Answer

For an argument to be valid, its conclusion must simply follow from the premises.

Show question

Question

Are begged questions sound, and why?

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Answer

No, because they are not true.

Show question

Question

For the argument to be sound, it must be both _____ and _____.

Show answer

Answer

Valid, true

Show question

Question

Why do people beg the question?

Show answer

Answer

There is no single cause. Often though, it is out of ignorance. People make assumptions, then draw conclusions based on those untrue assumptions.

Show question

Question

Oftentimes and incorrectly, "it begs the question" just means what?

Show answer

Answer

"The question is..."

Show question

Question

Can you beg the question in an essay?

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Answer

Well you can, but you shouldn't.

Show question

Question

To avoid not begging the question, don’t skip discussing the _____ of a story you analyze.

Show answer

Answer

Setup

Show question

Question

To avoid begging the question, _____ the causal relationships in the story.


Show answer

Answer

Analyze

Show question

Question

To avoid begging the question, follow a line of _____.

Show answer

Answer

Reasoning

Show question

Question

To avoid begging the question, don't _____.

Show answer

Answer

Get ahead of yourself

Show question

Question

Is circular reasoning a kind of begging the question? Why or why not?

Show answer

Answer

Yes, because circular reasoning ultimately assumes the truthfulness of its self-validating reason.

Show question

Question

When you beg the question, you are _____. When you pose a loaded question, you are _____.


Show answer

Answer

Drawing a conclusion, asking a question

Show question

Question

These fossils are 2047 years old. We can tell because they're embedded in 2047-year-old rocks. We know that the rocks are 2047 years old because there are 2047-year-old fossils in them.


Is this an example of circular reasoning or begging the question?

Show answer

Answer

Circular reasoning

Show question

Question

Because these fossils are 2047 years old, we can learn a lot from them about what the world was like 2047 years ago.


Is this an example of circular reasoning or begging the question?

Show answer

Answer

Begging the question

Show question

Question

Because Kai is too short to ride the rollercoaster, you'll have to stay behind with her.


Is this an example of circular reasoning or begging the question?

Show answer

Answer

Begging the question

Show question

Question

Kai is too short to ride the rollercoaster because she's less than 4 feet tall. Kids that short can't ride rollercoasters.


Is this an example of circular reasoning or begging the question?

Show answer

Answer

Circular reasoning

Show question

Question

Because my town is the most popular tourist destination in the country, traffic is really bad.


Is this an example of circular reasoning or begging the question?

Show answer

Answer

Begging the question

Show question

Question

Because my town is the most popular tourist destination in the country, traffic is really bad. The crazy traffic makes the town a big tourist site.


Is this an example of circular reasoning or begging the question?

Show answer

Answer

Circular reasoning

Show question

Question

Identify the premise in this argument.


Because the wildlife population in this state has shrunk by 50%, hunting should be outlawed.

Show answer

Answer

The wildlife population has shrunk by 50%.

Show question

Question

Identify the premise in this argument.


My aunt is the last living person with albinism. That's why there have been so many news articles about her.

Show answer

Answer

My aunt is the last living person with albinism.

Show question

Question

My aunt is the last living person with albinism. That's why there have been so many news articles about her.


This argument begs the question of _____.

Show answer

Answer

Is she really the last living person with albinism?

Show question

Question

Because the wildlife population in this state has shrunk by 50%, hunting should be outlawed.


This argument begs the question of _____.

Show answer

Answer

Has the wildlife population really shrunk by 50%?

Show question

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