Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 37;   September 15, 2004: Begging the Question

Begging the Question

by

Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?

A rhetorical fallacy is an error in reasoning. There are dozens of different kinds of fallacies, and "begging the question" is among the most common. We beg the question when we use one unproven assertion to "prove" another. For example:

Boss: "Jean, Mark says you're bullying him. I want it stopped."

Jean: "I certainly am not bullying anyone."

Boss: "Then why does Mark say so? Stop it, or I'll have to take action."

Here, Boss uses an unproven assertion that Mark would complain only if Jean were actually bullying him.

Circular reasoningWhen the unproven assertion underlies a long chain of assertions, unwinding the fallacy is like opening a nested set of Russian matryushka dolls. We find assertion within assertion, but never the solid proof we seek.

Although inept or devious debaters are the usual perpetrators, we do find rhetorical fallacies elsewhere. Our innermost thoughts can contain chains of unreason using rhetorical fallacies, and we can find them embedded in organizational policy and procedure, where they have enormous impact. Here's an example:

Boss: You're unsuitable for customer contact, so I reassigned you to maintenance of the mud pit.

Jean: In what way am I unsuitable?

Boss: Well, for one thing, you're covered with mud.

Our innermost thoughts
can contain chains
of unreason that
use rhetorical fallacies
This is a form of begging the question that's sometimes called circular reasoning. In circular reasoning, the assertion chain loops back on itself. In this example, the circularity lies not in the reasoning, but in the sequence of events. It's laughably obvious, because the chain is so short, but in realistic situations, the chain can be so long that the circularity escapes our notice.

If the Boss above wants to beg the question without circularity, he or she might try this:

Boss: Because you question everything — you're even questioning me right now.

Since Boss has demonstrated neither that Jean questions "everything," nor that questioning implies unsuitability for customer contact, both propositions are unproven.

Here are some tips for dealing with those who beg the question.

Think it through
Does your partner's reasoning use unproven assertions? How many? Which are most important?
Seek justification
If the floor is open for discussion, ask your partner to justify the most important unproven assertions.
Avoid citing your partner for begging the question
Many of us have heard the term "begging the question," but we aren't sure what it means. Confronting people who are unsure might embarrass them, which can have explosive results.
Confronting power can be risky
When people with power beg the question, they usually know what they're doing. Confronting people who intend to sneak one past you probably won't work.
Limit inquiry
If your partner responds to your inquiry by begging the question yet again, back off. Further progress is unlikely.

Begging the question introduces risk by distorting group process. How do I know? Trust me, it just does, OK? Go to top Top  Next issue: The Unappreciative Boss  Next Issue

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