Episode 45: Begging your question, sir?

Begging the Question No Logo Cropped.png

During one of our regular grocery store outings my wife and I were seen doing the aimless wander looking for just one item walk.  This is when you go back and forth in one isle because you can’t find the one thing you are looking for.  In this case, it was Sparkle Choppers toothpaste with mega strength whitening, straightening, cavity fighting and bad breath destroying additives.  When we couldn’t find it, my wife asked why I needed this one brand.  I said My dentist told me I should use this because it’s the brand most often recommended by dentists.  She looked at me quizzically and said Honey, did you forget to put your critical thinking hat on again?  I think there is a problem with that argument.  Indeed, she was right, as usual.  I had missed an obvious use of ‘begging the question’.

Begging the question

is a type of circular reasoning fallacy in which the claim is already made in the premise.  The claim assumes itself to be true and therefore it is true.  If you read something that begs the question you may instinctively have a well, duh moment.  This is because you’ll recognize that the claim and premise reference each other.  In my example we can see that my dentist recommended the brand most often recommended by dentists.  The argument is referencing itself.  If my buddy Phil, a plumber, had recommended it then we wouldn’t have the circular reasoning.  It’s still not a great argument because it’s just relying on marketing, but it’s not begging the question.

Let’s look

at an example from my other life – All good woodworkers own a quality handsaw because having a quality handsaw is a sign of a good woodworker.  Hopefully you had the well, duh moment when you read that.  A good way to recognize a begging the question argument is when you see the same word or phrase on both sides of the sentence.  In this case we see owning a handsaw is both what makes a good woodworker and why good workers have one.  Think of the because as the middle of the argument and you’ll see this phrase on either side of it.

Sometimes it’s easier to slip this argument by if it’s crafted well and supports something most people would believe anyway.  Consider this – To get healthy you should eat 3 servings of vegetables a day because eating vegetables is a part of a healthy diet.  Read that without thinking too hard and it probably sounds reasonable.  We’re generally told that eating vegetables is part of a healthy diet (too bad eating pizza isn’t!).  However, we can see eating vegetables and health are both before and after the because which tells us this is begging the question.  Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s not also a fallacy.

Our example above about eating vegetables could almost have been considered non-fallacious.  Begging the question doesn’t apply if we’re discussing something accepted as universally true.  While eating our veggies is considered a good idea by most, some think a diet should have more good fats and proteins.  So, it’s not universally accepted.  However, if we say Everything will fall because gravity makes everything fall, while it is begging the question it’s not really fallacious because gravity is a universally accepted fact.  If you don’t accept gravity as a fact, I’d stay away from ledges.

If you find

yourself saying well, duh after hearing an argument that’s a good sign to see if it’s begging the question or using circular reasoning.  They are pretty easy to spot, fortunately.  If you hear one you could ask the person making the argument to provide more proof.  Then see if they can add premises or adjust their claim to remove the fallacy.  Perhaps above I could have added additional information about the nutritional, biological and digestive benefits of a higher vegetable diet.  That would have removed the circular reasoning.  My dentist also recommended brushing and flossing after every blog post, so I’ll see ya!