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Begging your pardon

July 15, 2009

Oliver Kamm recently started a new column for The Times called “The Pedant” that takes an unapologetic and proud stance on pedantry and the correct use of language.  Although not nearly as adept with the English language as Oliver Kamm, I nonetheless often gleefully partake in moments of pedantry myself. One widespread error I particularly enjoy bringing to attention is the misuse of the term “to beg the question/begging the question”. I received my initial instruction on the use of this term, and its erroneous misuse, at the hands of the brilliant Paul Brownsey, one of my lecturers at university on the subject of moral philosphy.

“Begging the question” is a logical fallacy in which the premises of an argument contain the claim or the assumption that the conclusion is true. The assumption that the conclusion is true does not serve as evidence that it is so.

Some useful examples can be found at The Skeptic’s Dictionary, as given below.

The following argument begs the question.

We know God exists because we can see the perfect order of His Creation, an order which demonstrates supernatural intelligence in its design.

The conclusion of this argument is that God exists. The premise assumes a Creator and Designer of the universe exists, i.e., that God exists. In this argument, the arguer should not be granted the assumption that the universe exhibits intelligent design, but should be made to provide support for that claim.

The following argument also begs the question.

Abortion is the unjustified killing of a human being and as such is murder. Murder is illegal. So abortion should be illegal.

The conclusion of the argument is entailed in its premises. If one assumes that abortion is murder then it follows that abortion should be illegal because murder is illegal. Thus, the arguer is assuming abortion should be illegal (the conclusion) by assuming that it is murder. In this argument, the arguer should not be granted the assumption that abortion is murder, but should be made to provide support for this claim.

My own personal favourite example of begging the question is the frequent deployment of the illegitimate buzzword “Islamophobia”. This ridiculous neologism assumes that fear and hostility expressed toward Islam is irrational and unjustifiable. (The word itself is not synonymous with “anti-Muslim bigotry”, for reasons that I believe are quite deliberate.) As such, it is a word that inherently begs the question.

The widespread, erroneous use of  “beg the question” is when the phrase is used to mean “raise the question” or “prompt the question” and you wil most commonly encounter this error when news anchors or other TV journalists are conducting interviews. Even the mighty Jon Snow of Channel 4 News can be heard saying to British politicians something along the lines of “but that begs the question, minister, what happened to the money that was promised?” Whatever facts, developments or statements are being made in this context, they are usually simply raising or prompting questions. The confusion is thought to lie in the common understanding of “beg” i.e. meaning to ask earnestly or to entreat.

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