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Begging the question

Written By: - Date published: 8:45 am, March 25th, 2011 - 43 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, humour, Media - Tags:

Yesterday, John Armstrong wrote “Goff’s management of the crisis has already begged a major question.” Apart from making me wonder if the question is ‘is it OK for the Minister of Police, Judith Collins, to go leaking stories about ongoing police investigations for political gain’, Armstrong’s turn of phrase also reminded me of this song (adult content).

“now this whole discussion begs the question/
Do know you this isn’t what begging the question means?”

Begging the question (petitio principii) is actually a type of logical fallacy where the conclusion is assumed within the premise. As Aristotle puts it “[B]egging the question is proving what is not self-evident by means of itself”. It’s similar to circular reasoning. I’ll steal Wikipedia’s example:

  • Person 1: Bob is annoyed right now.
  • Person 2: How do you know?
  • Person 1: Well, because he is really angry.

The conclusion that Bob is annoyed is based on the premise that he is angry, essentially the same thing. The conclusion is left unanswered (begging) by the premise. What evidence is that that Bob is annoyed/angry?

Another example is something we’ve heard from John Key and Bill English: “cancelling the tax cuts for the rich to pay for rebuilding Christchurch would hurt the economy because tax cuts boost growth”

The conclusion ‘cancelling tax cuts hurts the economy’ is just a rephrasing of ‘tax cuts boost growth’. No evidence is provided that the tax cuts for the rich boost growth. Of course, there is no evidence. But you’ll never get Key and English to admit that.

But, with translation and a couple of thousand years of non-philosophers using the term, ‘begging the question’ has come to be most commonly used the way Armstrong does, as meaning ‘raising a question’. Which is a bit of a loss for reasoned argument. But such is the way of the world.

43 comments on “Begging the question ”

  1. south paw 1

    Another philosophical idea that has been debased is “happiness”. Used to refer to those political concepts connected to the long and ongoing struggle for individual freedom and social justice. Now it refers to egoism and fluffy self indulgence – romance/sex, careerism, money, Oprah style pop psychology, get away holidays and other forms of conspicuous consumption.

    Maybe that’s one reason pollies are finding it harder and harder to keep it in their pants – and that goes for the girls too.

  2. Chris 2

    “Apart from making me wonder if the question is ‘is it OK for the Minister of Police, Judith Collins, to go leaking stories about ongoing police investigations for political gain”

    Evidence please ?

    • lprent 2.1

      It doesn’t state that she did. It merely asks a question. Perhaps you should read the post again.

      But since you’ve raised it, it is a question that I’d like to find out your answer to? Is it ok?

      (And I promise never to misuse petitio principii again (not that I ever did)).

      • sean14 2.1.1

        A fine bit of sophistry.

        I heard that Darren Hughes himself (at the request of Helen Clark) leaked the story in order to undermine Goff so she could someone she prefers in the job. I’m not saying that is what happened, just that it’s what I heard. I would like to find out the answer though, is that okay?

        • lprent

          Very good. It looks like you understood my comment. It was a speculation rather than a statement of known fact.

          I can’t really see why Helen would be that interested in Labour politics in NZ. She has a major job to do at the UN, and I’d say that she has very little time to spend on NZ. When I’ve spoken to her over the last few years most of the political talk has been on the UNDP issues

          But I can see why you’d want to avoid looking at a question that deals with NZ politics. It must be simpler to envisage a bogeywoman elsewhere rather than dealing with reality here.

          • Olwyn

            I agree lprent – it’s strange how some people have the idea that Helen is running things from afar, like some sort of James Bond baddie. Neither can I see why Darren Hughes would jeopardise himself to such a degree for such an uncertain result.

          • sean14

            I see I should have included sarcasm tags in my comment. For the record, I don’t think that Helen Clark is still running Labour. I think that Phil Goff is and he’s doing a terrible job.

            Let’s deal with the question then. Did Judith Collins leak the Hughes story to the media? Answer, I don’t know, I don’t have any information either way (apart from idle speculation).

            I’ll accept that you were speculating, but since you want me to deal with the question (which I have), why don’t you tell me what your answer is?

            • Olwyn

              Sorry for treating your comment a bit too literally Sean; I am tired today.

  3. prism 3

    Clever, funny vid clip.

    anti-spam – interpretation

    • Bright Red 3.1

      “If you’re confusing lay with lie/ Then I can testify that you will not get lied”


  4. Oleolebiscuitbarrell 4

    God bless you. I absolutely hate the widespread misuse of begging the question. It is always used by people who think that their mis-use makes them sound learned.

  5. Pascal's bookie 5

    Here’s my favourite explanation of what begging the question means:


    mainly coz it contains this:

    Or, the Popeye-Cartesian proof of existence:
    •I think what I think.
    •Therefore, I yam what I yam.

    ..which is a close enough ‘shorter’ of Objectivism to make me lulz

  6. mikesh 6

    Actually, the missing premise in the “tax cuts boost growth” argument is the proposition that boosting growth is good for the economy, not whether tax cuts do boost growth; though of course this latter proposition may also need proof.

    The syllogism implied is:
    tax cuts boost growth
    boosting growth is good for the economy
    therefore tax cuts are good for the economy

  7. tsmithfield 7

    “Apart from making me wonder if the question is ‘is it OK for the Minister of Police, Judith Collins, to go leaking stories about ongoing police investigations for political gain’,”

    Interesting theory about Judith Collins. However, this story was going to leak one way or another. So thats not really the problem. The main issue is the abysmal way that Goff has handled this situation that has left the door open for the inevitable leak to occur.

    • Pascal's bookie 7.1

      Right wing ‘personal responsibility’ raises it’s mewlingly selective flag once again I see.

      Why would it would leak anyway, unless some one leaked it? Leaks are active things that require actors, so why would the actor not be responsible?

      This is the same old line righties run about everything awful that they do. ‘Oh it was inevitable that the victim’s name would be leaked, so it doesn’t matter that we launch an orgy of victim blaming.’

    • lprent 7.2

      A big issue is about how about the way that it leaked. It cuts to how the police handle their cases – which is a crucial question about if the police can be trusted.

      It is clear that information about the incident was tightly held inside Labour. In fact Goff is getting a lot of stick about that.

      Yesterday this was said in a Herald article

      Two days later, students began to receive calls from the police. Mr Templeton said he was interviewed within a week.

      “I wasn’t told of any of the allegations. I just gave them a rundown of what happened that night, including what drinks I had at which bars.

      “They asked where the complainant was in relation to me when we were in the same place, but they didn’t ask me about Darren at all, and at the time I had no idea Darren was involved.”

      A student, who did not want to be named, said the complainant was keeping up “his usual, confident personality” and had not discussed the incident at all, except with police.

      So the police appear to have been handling it correctly at the investigation side – they were looking for the facts in the case and not prejudicing witnesses.

      If someone in the police leaked it, then someone should be up on charges. They have just undermined the polices ability to investigate crimes and prejudiced any possible case from this incident.

      If people consulted in a legal capacity (another favorite theory of the right at present) leaked it, then they should be getting disbarred because there is no way that a lawyer should be telling people.

      But if the police minister or someone in her office leaked it, then it would explain the ‘rumors’ that were around parliament but seemed to curiously only go to the Police Minister and the PM – who appear to have been the only people to mentioned them.

      At present, I suspect that it did come from the Police Ministers office. And frankly I think her denial yesterday was very carefully worded. Perhaps an investigation is called for examining if the ministers office is leaking police operations?

    • Pascal's bookie 7.3

      Lawyer defending mafia goon on a murder charge:

      “That snitch was always going to get rubbed out. So that’s not really the problem. The main issue is the abysmal way that the police went about protecting the innocent citizens of our fair city”

  8. ianmac 8

    I always thought that begging the question meant that there I see a problem. (My house is on fire.) What caused the problem? (The stove blew up.)
    What can I do to solve it? (Buy a new stove and sack the cook.)

  9. Olwyn 9

    The battle is long lost with regard to begging the question: it is so ubiquitous that it must no longer feature in style books or house rules in general, except perhaps those with the highest of standards. I blame the turn to emotive journalism: “begging” has an emotional potential that “raising” lacks. Meanwhile, I know John Key is fabulous, because his PR team say so, and finding John Key fabulous is a prerequisite to being on his PR team.

    • Lanthanide 9.1

      I agree, “begging the question” is too far gone due to the vernacular use of begging, beggar and to beg.

      We should therefore come up with a new phrase that can’t be co-opted and muddied that means what “begging the question” really means now, and people can go on using “begging the question” when they really mean “raising”.

      • Olwyn 9.1.1

        It can be rephrased, so as to say, “That is a question-begging argument,” rather “You are begging the question mate.”

  10. Jim Nald 10

    Some of us are begging to see the connection between logic and Armstrong.

    • apples are yum 10.1

      that is funny because it made me laugh. It is also true.

      • Bored 10.1.1

        You are right. By way of diversionary tactics have a gink at Cactus Kates latest missive, its very funny too, she slays Coddington and hooten as softies.

  11. William joyce 11

    It’s one of those “Grumpy Old Men” things that I fear are taking hold of my life…I find myself yelling at the tv
    – “it raises the question not begs it!”
    – “it has affected millions not impacted millions!”
    – “they are reacting from anger not angst!”
    and the worst I heard …”she suffered several punctuation wounds”…..ouch!
    …and if I haven’t got enough to worry about with a right wing power elite in charge of my country, I find myself mumbling under my breath about people not parking between the lines, not looking when existing the aisle with their shopping trolleys, or parking their trolleys in the middle of the aisle ………oh look, it time for me to sit on the porch, under a blanket with my strained tea and digestive biscuit.

    • r0b 11.1

      Sigh. I hear ya…

    • Pascal's bookie 11.2

      ‘not looking when existing the aisle with their shopping trolleys’

      A common course of exitential crises. I don’t even even have a fucking porch.

      • William joyce 11.2.1

        lol – yes, but I set the rules and I can break them – rules are only for people who don’t know what they’re doing. It’s all those other people who are messin’ with my “exitence” and contributing to my “exitential depression” – it would all be so much easier if there was a dog.

    • PeteG 11.3

      not looking when existing the aisle with their shopping trolley

      Inevitable if someone complains about the misuse of words.

    • Vicky32 11.4

      “and the worst I heard …”she suffered several punctuation wounds”…..ouch!”
      Please tell me you’re kidding! That being said, I have heard some horrific ones – mostly from TV reporters… including a woman using ‘unable’ as a verb! “On the grounds that it would unable the protestors to demonstrate”… (Hides head and sobs!)
      Then there’s the ubiquity of ‘different than’, sked-yool, and all the other things the 20-something reporters and advertisers have grown up hearing in films.
      I suspect tney spent their formative years in front of the electronic baby-sitter, though it’s unlikely – TV men and women are usually fairly ‘upper’ and would have actually spent their formative years with a nanny.. (Who sat them in front of the telly of course!)

  12. Zaphod Beeblebrox 12

    What a nasty little culture we have amongst parliamentary followers in this country. All this supposition based upon no knowledge of tha facts at all. The worst was NatRadio yesterday at 6AM who were quoting ‘sources’ discussing Hughes actions. I hope they get deluged with complaints about that one.

    BTW- is the leak to be investigated.

  13. deemac 13

    funny how the media find Goff’s handling of this poor but were quite happy with Key’s handling of Wong.

  14. RobC 14

    whenever someone wants to “beg the question” with me I tell them “bugger the question”

  15. randal 15

    begging the question huh.
    is the case or is it not the case that they all hang around with the dudes from the phil dept at vic and then they think they know everything.
    and they all add interrogatives at the end of their assertions which is another invalid form of argument.
    and common too.

  16. Vicky32 16

    So, “begging the question” joins all the other things/sayings/usages that make me seriously off-piste! Everything from the trivial (apostrophes with plurals), through the slightly more important (persistent Americanisms that obscure valuable distinctions – such as pants/trousers, chips/crisps, bathroom/toilet, store/shop) to such things as what King Knut is alleged to have done, versus what he actually did – etc.
    Much though I hate the phrase, redolent of the right wing as it is, it’s “dumbing down”… *
    * Which brings me another one which has serious implications – the use of ‘dumb’ (real meaning mute) as a synonym for stupid, and ‘retarded’ instead of better and more mature terms for ‘developmentally disabled’.
    As I have said before – Yes, it does matter what you call things!

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