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Begs the Question: Update

Language is changing but that doesn't mean you have to go with the flow.

By
Mignon Fogarty
March 6, 2014
Episode #406

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Begs the Question

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Today I'm going to beg the question.

Often when I do radio interviews, callers ask me about the phrase begs the question. They often hear begs the question used to mean “raises the question,” and if they took a formal logic class in college or had a particularly diligent English teacher, they think the “raises the question” meaning is wrong. 

They’re right, but it’s a little more complicated than that too.

The Right Way to Use "Begs the Question”

Begs the question is a term that comes from formal logic. It’s a translation of the Latin phrase petitio principii, and it's used to mean that someone has made a conclusion based on a premise that lacks support. (1, 2) It can be a premise that's independent from the conclusion (3) or in a simpler form, a premise that’s just a restatement of the conclusion itself. (4,5)

For example, let's say Squiggly is trying to convince Aardvark that chocolate is good for you, and his argument is that chocolate grows on trees, so it must be good for you. Aardvark could rightly say there's no proof that something is good for you simply because it grows on a tree. Some things that grow on trees are poisonous-Chinaberry tree fruit, for example. (6) So Squiggly's argument is based on a faulty premise.

Aardvark could correctly say that Squiggly's argument begs the question. What does growing on trees have to do with being good for you?

I remember what begs the question means by thinking that the argument raises a specific question-it begs *the* question-What's your support for that premise? Or more informally, What does that have to do with anything? You use the phrase begs the question when people are hoping you won't notice that their reasons for coming to a conclusion aren't valid. They've built an argument on a bad foundation. The question is What's your support for that premise?

Here's an example of a simpler argument that also begs the question. This one just restates the conclusion as a basis for the conclusion: Chocolate is delicious because it's yummy. Again, the question is What's the support for your premise? If I didn't accept that chocolate is delicious, I'm not going to accept that it's yummy just because you say it's delicious. They're the same thing. It’s circular reasoning. Stop begging the question and make a better argument.

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