begging the question (fallacy)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

George Burns and Gracie Allen
Comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen (See the Lighter Side of Begging the Question at the end of this article.). (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Definition

Begging the question is a fallacy in which the premise of an argument presupposes the truth of its conclusion; in other words, the argument takes for granted what it's supposed to prove.

In Critical Thinking (2008), William Hughes and Jonathan Lavery offer this example of question begging: "Morality is very important, because without it people would not behave according to moral principles." 

"An argument that begs the question isn't an argument at all," say George Rainbolt and Sandra Dwyer. "It's an assertion disguised to look like an argument" (Critical Thinking: The Art of Argument, 2015)

Used in this sense, the word beg means "to avoid," not "ask" or "lead to." Begging the question is also known as circular argument, tautology, and petitio principii (Latin for "seeking the beginning").

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "The meaning of the idiom [beg the question] is to assume as true the very point that is under discussion. . . . Frequently, but erroneously, the phrase is used as if it meant to evade a direct answer to a question."
    (Theodore Bernstein, Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, 1971)
     
  • "Here is an example [of begging the question] taken from an article on exclusive men's clubs in San Francisco. In explaining why these clubs have such long waiting lists, Paul B. 'Red' Fay, Jr. (on the roster of three of the clubs) said, 'The reason there's such a big demand is because everyone wants to get in them.' In other words, there is a big demand because there is a big demand."
    (Howard Kahane and Nancy Cavender, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life, 10th ed. Wadsworth, 2006)
     
  • "Ordnance Survey, bless it, is worried that the growing use of satellite navigation systems means that we're losing our map-reading skills. Which is a classic case of begging the question: who said our map-reading skills were any good in the first place?"
    (Charles Arthur, "Technophile." The Guardian, December 13, 2007)
     
  • "Currently, 'begging the question' almost always means, O.K., 'prompting a different' question--but prompting with an urgency derived less from cogency than from the word 'beg.' . . . The traditional usage of 'beg the question' was analytic, probative. The current one lends itself to special pleading."
    (Roy Blount, Jr., "Fair Usage." The New York Times, May 20, 2009)

     
  • Begging the Batman Question
    "Here is one reason we cannot use: Batman is great and so his gadgetry must be pro. Of course, this would beg the question, since we are trying to figure out why Batman is so great. If you think about this argument, it would go like this: Batman is great because he has awesome gadgetry, and his awesome gadgetry is great because he's Batman, and Batman is great. This argument travels in a circle. To avoid begging the question, we need to straighten that circle out. To do this, we need to justify the greatness of Batman independently of how we already feel about Batman."
    (Galen Foresman, "Why Batman Is Better Than Superman." Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul, ed. by Mark D. White and Robert Arp. Wiley, 2008)
     
  • When Does Misuse Become Use?
    - "Another logical term widely misused by careless speakers is 'begging the question.' This is often thought to mean raising (or forcing) the question. It doesn't. To beg the question is to presuppose the conclusion in one's argument, thus to reason circularly. . . .

    "I imagine that people began using the phrase improperly because 'this begs the question' seems to mean that this begs us--asks us earnestly, entreats us--to raise and consider the question.

    "The actual origin of the phrase seems to come from a mistranslation of the Latin phrase the medieval logicians used to refer to an argument that assumes its own conclusion: petitio principii. This is fairly literally translated as 'assuming the starting point.' But 'petitio' also means 'begging' (whence the English word 'petition')."
    (Robert M. Martin, There Are Two Errors in the the Title of This Book: A Sourcebook of Philosophical Puzzles, Paradoxes and Problems, 2nd ed. Broadview Press, 2002)

    - "[T]ake the very common expression to beg the question. This is certainly one that's currently shifting in meaning. Originally it referred to the practice of assuming something that implies the conclusion or, as The Macquarie Dictionary more elegantly puts it, 'to assume the point that is being raised in the question.' . . . But this is not how beg the question is often used these days. . . . Since the general understanding of beg is 'to ask for,' it's hardly surprising that speakers have reinterpreted the phrase beg the question as meaning 'raise a question.'

    "So is all this misuse? . . . When a few people start using beg the question to mean 'raise the question,' then it's clearly misuse. But when many people start using the phrase this way, what do you do? . . . Unfortunately, there's no magic time when misuse becomes use. It's murky and it's messy."
    (Kate Burridge, Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further Observations on the Tangled History of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2005)

     
  • The Lighter Side of Begging the Question
    Gracie: Gentlemen prefer blondes.
    George: How do you know that?
    Gracie: A gentleman told me so.
    George: How did you know he was a gentleman?
    Gracie: Because he preferred blondes.
    (George Burns and Gracie Allen, quoted by Ronald J. Waicukauski et al. in The Winning Argument. American Bar Association, 2001)