Fallacies: Begging the Question and Circular Arguments
  • 4-minute read
  • 14th May 2019

Fallacies: Begging the Question and Circular Arguments

We’re back with another fallacy (i.e., an argument that contains a hidden mistake). Today, we’re looking at “begging the question,” sometimes known as making a circular argument. But what does this mean? And how can you avoid begging the question in your writing?

What Is Begging the Question?

“Begging the question” means assuming the truth of an argument in how you present it. For example, we could say something like this:

My sandwiches are the best because nobody makes better sandwiches.

The use of “because” here makes it look like an argument, where the second part of the sentence should support or justify the first part. However, we can see how this begs the question if we break it down into two parts:

  1. My main claim is that I make the best sandwiches.
  2. My justification for this is that nobody makes better sandwiches.

This does not tell us anything new: “I make the best sandwiches” already implies that nobody makes better sandwiches. Thus, we go in a circle if we try to justify the first statement using the second one.

More Circular Arguments

Begging the question is a type of circular reasoning. And while the example above is clearly flawed, some circular arguments are less obvious. Consider the following statements, for example:

  1. We know God exists because it says so in the Bible, which is the word of God.
  2. I know ghosts are real because I have seen one.

These are less clearly circular, but both beg the question:

  1. Arguing that the Bible proves God’s existence only works if you accept that everything in the Bible is true because it is the word of God.
  2. Seeing a ghost only proves that ghosts are real if you are already certain that you were not, for instance, hallucinating when you saw one.

Unpacking a statement like this can help you see its circularity.

 How to Avoid Begging the Question

So, how do you avoid this fallacy in your work? As mentioned above, you can break an argument down to see if it is circular. For instance, let’s look at the existence of ghosts again. Our argument is:

I know ghosts are real because I have seen one.

We can break this down into two statements:

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Premise 1: I have seen a ghost.

Conclusion: I therefore know that ghosts are real.

But this rules out other explanations for our experience of seeing a ghost, such as a hallucination or a prank. It relies on already knowing we have seen a real ghost. Writing it out like this lets us see the “gap” in the argument:

Premise 1: I have seen a ghost.

Premise 2: I know that what I saw was a ghost.

Conclusion: I therefore know that ghosts are real.

With this new premise, the argument is complete. But unless we have a separate reason for thinking that the second premise is true, all we have done is assume the truth of the conclusion we were trying to reach.

If you are worried that an argument begs the question, then, try breaking it down into premises and a conclusion. This should help you spot any circularity and work out whether there is a “gap” you need to fill.

Proofreading can help, too, as the more clearly you can express your arguments, the easier it will be to avoid fallacies.

Question Begging vs. Question Raising

Finally, one extra thing to note here is that “begging” a question does NOT mean “raising a question”. People may use it this way in day-to-day conversation, but this is technically incorrect. Remember:

  • To “beg” the question is to make a circular argument.
  • To “raise” a question is to put it forward for consideration.

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