Silly beggers

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A [guy/gal (delete as appropriate)] is interviewed on the radio about [politics/current affairs/history/sex/science/money/their mother]. They (shocker) try to avoid answering a direct question be relating it to some other matter. A completely fictional example:

Interviewer: Prime Minister, did you take us into an illegal war, which had no international legitimacy?
PM: Well, what’s important to remember here is that international legitimacy is not the only mandate for going to war (there’s other stuff like oil too, he coughs).
Interviewer: But then surely that begs the question regarding why we have international bodies like the UN who can legitimise wars in the first place, doesn’t it?

No, no it doesn’t. Oh no it does not. Whilst it may raise the question. The one thing it certainly does not do is to beg it. And here’s why: “Begging the question is related to the fallacy known as circular argument, circulus in probando, vicious circle or circular reasoning”. Begging the question means to assume as proven exactly that which is in dispute.

Let’s take a simple example: eggs. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Well considering that chickens lay eggs and you can’t have an egg without a chicken to lay it, chickens must have come first, right? Hang on, this is starting to sound strangely like pulling the wool over your eyes, and chickens don’t even have wool. The point in this rather obvious example is that I’m assuming that chickens came first, in order to produce the egg. I’m trying to win the argument by assuming the conclusion: that chickens came first. (I don’t know much about chickens, by the way, and I know even less about which came first, though if I had to guess, my money would be on the egg.)

Another example: my hat’s better than yours. Why? Well, because I like mine better than yours, that’s why. Does that make mine the better head gear? The conclusion is based on the implicit assumption that my subjective (and in some cases questionable) tastes are the meter by which quality is measured. I like mine more, therefore it’s better. I’ve assumed here that my affection for my hat is sufficient to prove my case; the case that I think my hat is spiffier than yours. It’s not really surprising that, seeing as I like my hat so much, I think it’s better than yours. But it’s fallacious.

In order to successfully argue the case for my hat, we first need to agree the qualities that a hat should strive for (heat, comfort, price, covering the head, looking cool, etc). Then when we have agreed on these criteria, we need some independently verifiable way of measuring them (like a poll, or a referendum). Only then can we prove whose hat is best. I sincerely doubt it will be mine.

But I digress. Hats aside for now, because I don’t want to raise more than one issue at the moment. And that issue is not the hat competition, it’s the (hopefully now clarified) incorrect use of the very important notion of begging the question.

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