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

Begging the Question

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Capitol Hill at nightThe Slippery Slope That Isn't
"If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope" tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears. Another in a series about rhetorical tricks that push our buttons.
A shouting matchAvoid Typing Under the Influence
When we communicate, we can't control how other people interpret our communications. Accidental offense is inevitable, and email is especially likely to produce examples of this problem. What can we do as members of electronic communities when trouble erupts?
Dr. Jerri Nielsen at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 1999On Virtual Relationships
Whether or not you work as part of a virtual team, you probably work with some people you rarely meet face-to-face. And there are some people you've never met, and probably never will. What does it take to maintain good working relationships with people you rarely meet?
Richard Posner, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in ChicagoSome Subtleties of ad hominem Attacks
Groups sometimes make mistakes based on faulty reasoning used in their debates. One source of faulty reasoning is the ad hominem attack. Here are some insights that help groups recognize and avoid this class of errors.
A Bengal TigerDealing with Deniable Intimidation
Some people use intimidation so stealthily that only their targets recognize the behavior as abusive or intimidating. Targets are often so frustrated, angered, and confused that they cannot find suitable responses.

See also Emotions at Work, Effective Communication at Work, Critical Thinking at Work and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A dog playing catch with a discComing August 28: Playing at Work
Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean. Available here and by RSS on August 28.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other peopleAnd on September 4: How Messages Get Mixed
Although most authors of mixed messages don't intend to be confusing, message mixing does happen. One of the most fascinating mixing mechanisms occurs in the mind of the recipient of the message. Available here and by RSS on September 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership
On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
More articles about person-to-person communication!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!