Definition and Examples of the Logical Fallacy

George Burns and Gracie Allen
(Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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."

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

Examples and Observations

Theodore Bernstein: "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."

Howard Kahane and Nancy Cavender: "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."

Begging the Batman Question

Galen Foresman: "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."

When Does Misuse Become Use

Kate Burridge: "[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.'

The Lighter Side of Begging the Question

George Burns and Gracie Allen:

  • 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.