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:
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.