What Does "Begging the Question" Really Mean?

by Tina Blue
August 14, 2003

On three separate occasions over the past two weeks I have encountered a misuse of the phrase "begging the question" by people who are obviously educated and therefore could be expected to know better. 

Unfortunately, even an otherwise decent education no longer guarantees that a person will have been trained in logic or in the nature of logical fallacies, so the logical fallacy known as begging the question  is not what most people think of when they hear that phrase.

As far as I can tell from the contexts I have seen the phrase misused in, those who wield it believe it means to raise an important question with a certain amount of emphasis.

It doesn't mean that at all.

I forget where I first saw this phrase misused during the last two weeks, because at the time I wasn't thinking of it as a pattern, just as a single error.

But by the second time I was sensitized to it, and also somewhat startled by who it was who misused it. It was Joseph C. Wilson, a retired US ambassador who directed a mission to Niger in 2002 that helped to discredit claims that Iraq had targeted that country as a source for uranium.  Wilson wrote in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times (6 July 2003), "A legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses."  Then, in a Washington Post interview, Wilson added, "It really comes down to the administration misrepresenting the facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war. It begs the question, what else are they lying about?"

The third time I encountered the error was in an article about writing personal essays, in which author David A. Fryxell says, The danger of essays is that they beg the question, 'Who cares?'" (Writer's Digest Sept 2003: 20).

Begging the question does not mean to bring up the question.  It means to present as true a premise that requires proof--i.e., taking a conclusion for granted before it is proved or assuming in the premises of your argument what is supposed to be proved in the conclusion.  (This fallacy is related to the circular argument.)

For example, when National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice asserted that we had to invade Iraq, because we didn't want the smoking-gun proof of their weapons of mass destruction to be a mushroom cloud over one of our cities, she was claiming as the premise of her argument the idea that the Iraqis had or were on the verge of having nuclear weapons.  But whether or not they had such weapons was precisely what needed to be proved in order to justify the invasion, so it could not be itself used as proof of the need to invade to preempt their use of such weapons.

When President Bush repeatedly suggested during the run-up to the invasion that Saddam Hussein, because of his hatred of the U.S., would be likely to give weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to al-Quaida, he was assuming a cooperative relationship between Hussein and al-Quaida, as well as assuming that Hussein actually did have WMDs.  But what he needed to prove in order to justify the invasion was that Hussein had WMDs and/or that Hussein had a cooperative relationship with al-Quaida.  Those were precisely the issues under contention, but his arguments for invasion always treated them as the premises, as if they were already proven.

And when President Bush calls it "revisionist history" whenever anyone questions whether intelligence was manipulated to justify the invasion, he is also begging the question. The only way to argue that intelligence was not manipulated would be to show that it was not.  Simply saying such questions are "revisionist history," is not answering the questions, but evading them.

Here is one more, less political, example: When a student accuses me of grading him unfairly because no matter how "excellent" his papers are, I never give them above a C, he is basing his argument that I grade unfairly on the unproven premise that his essays are excellent.  (You'd be surprised at how often teachers hear just such arguments.  On second thought, maybe you wouldn't be surprised at all.) 

I would never just put such a student off by saying he is practicing "revisionist history."  In order to justify my grading of his papers, I would have to lay out precisely what my standards are for each grade range, and where he met or fell short of those standards. 

Of course, I always do that--from the very beginning of the semester.  But emotionality often gets in the way of rational analysis, and a student is likely to be so emotionally invested in the idea that he writes excellent papers that he cannot accept that point as something that can be questioned at all.  Thus, by definition, anyone who questions the excellence of his papers must be wrong at best, and quite possibly even malicious.

Just as for President Bush, anyone who questions the way we were led to invade a small country that presented no immediate danger to us and that was in no way connected to the terrorists who had attacked us must be wrong--and quite possibly malicious partisans to boot.

So there you have it.  If you want to use the phrase to beg the question, keep in mind that it refers to a logical fallacy, not merely to the act of raising a question.

And if you want to keep your political representatives honest, insist that they answer legitimate questions, rather than merely begging them.

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