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Begging the Question

December 13, 2013
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The fact that gas prices keep going up begs the question: Why do they keep going up?

No, it doesn’t! It might “raise the question” or it might “incite the question,” but it doesn’t “beg the question.” To beg the question is to commit a presumptive logical fallacy.

In 2012 Ladyatheist wrote a creative blog post about the “10 Commandments of Logical Fallacies.” The problem is that I don’t agree with everything on there. The biggest problem on the list is the fourth commandment:

Thou shall not argue thy position by assuming one of its premises is true. (Begging the question)

That’s not what it means to beg the question. If you don’t assume a premise is true, then you need to argue for it. So, if we have to argue for every premise, then  we would end up arguing forever. We would argue A because B, B because C, C because D, on and on forever.

I think you have to have assumptions that certain premises are true. I don’t think you can prove every premise is true and it would be unfair to demand that of others.

There are different definitions given to the “begging the question fallacy.” The least controversial definition is of circular reasoning such as “Dogs exist because dogs exist.” Another definition is of any fallacy of presumption — to have an argument that requires an illegitimate assumption. But we still need to know how to know when an assumption is illegitimate.

I think the best way to know that an assumption is illegitimate is when it is used to require other people to agree with a premise that they don’t agree with, especially when that premise is controversial and makes the conclusion trivial.

For example:

  1. Stealing is always morally wrong.
  2. Forcing someone to give you her wallet at gunpoint is stealing.
  3. Therefore, it’s morally wrong to force someone to give you her wallet at gunpoint.

The first premise is not one anyone really agrees with and it would make the conclusion trivial.

The second premise is obviously true and should not have to be proven.

Other than the fourth commandment, I also disagree with the following commandments:

  • The sixth commandment — thou shall not reduce the argument down to two possibilities. Doing that is not always fallacious. We should consider every relevant and plausible possibility. Sometimes there’s only one plausible possibility and sometimes there are several.
  • The seventh commandment — Thou shall not argue that because of our ignorance, [a] claim must be true or false. Sometimes it is legitimate to take an absence of evidence to be a reason to believe something. The fact that I have no reason to think that I am a prince seems to be a good reason to think I’m not.

I noticed this list because Hammer the Gods made an image to capture these ten commandments, which I saw multiple times on facebook:

10 Commandments of Logic

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