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Begging the Question: A Common Mistake

October 21, 2009

Begging the Question: A Common Mistake

‘It is utterly immoral to question the motives of the President in times of war.’

What is wrong with what I wrote? Is it the sentiments?

No, it is the assumptions made in the sentence that are subject to question. Whenever someone makes a statement that presumes more than it can prove, they are begging the question. To put it simply, begging the question is making a sweeping generalization that leaves the listener or reader asking obvious questions.

In the first sentence, we are told that it is ‘immoral’ to question the motives of the president in times of war. We as critics have every right to ask whose ‘morality’ the writer is referring to? The writer is being presumptuous in assuming that his ‘morality’ is the ‘morality’ that everyone should subscribe to. What the writer really means is that we should accept his versions of ‘morality’ that dictates who has the right to question the president’s motives and when they can be questioned. This may seem a banal point but I see this mistake constantly coming up in speeches, editorials, and blogs. It is either sloppy writing or manipulative writing trying to force a point.

Too often I see statements that we are meant to be accepted without evidence to support their premise. ‘All patriotic people would support my case for war,’ is a classic case of begging the question. It begs the question of what defines a ‘patriotic’ person. Does it mean that the measure of a person’s patriotism is entirely dependent upon the writer’s opinion?

So when I see cases of begging the question in any writing I cringe at its shallowness. My advice is to never assume that your truisms are equal to a universal truth. If you wish to construct a convincing argument, rather than an emotional tirade, you would be best to avoid logical inconsistencies. Begging the question from someone trying to deconstruct your argument is an easy target. It stands out and offers the first point of attack because you failed to eliminate any obvious signs of prejudice. You are then left trying to find evidence to support what you may not be able to prove.

Avoid these types of argument at all costs:

Statement: ‘As Doctors know…’ begs the question: ‘Which Doctors?’

Statement: ‘It is common knowledge…’ begs the question: ‘Common to whom?’

Statement: ‘To be honest we all know it is wrong…’ begs the question: ‘Do only dishonest people not know it is wrong?’

Statement: ‘It is unacceptable to think…’ begs the question: ‘Unacceptable to whom?’

Statement: ‘It is ideologically correct…’ begs the question: ‘Whose ideology?’

And my favorite statement:

‘Politically Correct’ begs the question: ‘Whose politics?’

So why do people continue to ‘beg the question’ if it such a weak position to construct an argument? Ignorance could be part of the answer as some people may be totally unaware that they are doing so at the time. Some people may not be able to recognize ‘begging the question’ because they have never been taught about it. Others may ‘Beg the Question’ knowing it is wrong but are too lazy to chase up valid evidence. There may also be a desire for some people to use statements that ‘Beg the Question’ knowing that few people will challenge the assumption that they make. However, a person who intentionally ‘Begs the Question’ could be doing so for unscrupulous reasons. They may be trying to conceal the prejudices that their thesis is based upon. I leave you to decide if that is the case.

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