Begging His Pardon

As you are doubtlessly aware by now, I am planning to write a Critical Thinking textbook, using Trump’s rhetoric as examples of how not to conduct reasoned debate.  However, thanks to the recent hearing on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, I will have to broaden the parameters of my textbook.  Watching Kavanaugh’s testify, I must admit that I was impressed with his linguistic legerdemain.  When asked a direct question, Brett was able to parse it into oblivion.  Look at this example, when Senator Kamela Harris of California asked Kavanaugh a question that, to my ears at least, demanded a “yes” or “no” answer: did Kavanaugh discuss the Mueller investigation with anyone at Marc Kasowitz’s law firm?  Watch Kavanaugh prove me wrong.  Don’t worry—I’ll wait for you while you watch.

Impressive, huh?  Not only does he avoid the question (“Kasowitz? Kasowitz?  Do I know a Kasowitz?”), but he also sparks a parliamentary debate that gives him enough time to add a new doodle to his collection.  Harris, a former US attorney who is so scarily serious that she makes Robert Mueller look positively whimsical, has to admit defeat:  this particular greased piggy simply will not be caught.

Watching this performance, the following thought entered my Critical Thinking Teacher’s mind:  I bet that some one is going to say Kavanaugh’s performance “begged the question.”  And they would be wrong.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that a question is begged when it goes unanswered.  Unlike most logical mistakes, confusing the act of begging a question with avoiding a question is very easy to understand and even forgive.  When a question is asked, but is then ignored, one can imagine that it is shocked and humiliated not to have been answered.  “What’s wrong with me?” the question asks.  “I’m begging you to answer me!”  So, I don’t blame the person making the mistake:  I blame the idiot who gave the fallacy such a stupid, misleading name.  Sheesh.

If “begging the question” isn’t the same as avoiding it, then what the hell is it, you might ask.  Well, aren’t you lucky I’m here to explain it to you?

“Begging the question” occurs when the conclusion you want to make is included in the premise you state in support of your conclusion.  It’s a form of circular reasoning, and it ain’t good.  And, for the record, I have no idea why it’s called “begging the question.”  It is, however, abundant.  Here.  Let me give you an example:

Premise:  I believe that God wrote the Bible

Conclusion:  Everything in the Bible is true because God wrote it.

The conclusion (that everything in the Bible is true) depends upon the truth of the premise that God wrote the Bible.  However, the gruesome violence, blatant contradictions, and obvious multiple biases present in the Good Book make it highly debatable that a divinity worthy of the name wrote it.  Nope.  It is far more likely that it was penned by generations of flawed, frequently mad, doubtlessly inspired human beings.

Here’s an example that’s more up-to-date:

Premise:  The President of the United States is far too busy to deal with minutiae such as subpoenas from special prosecutors.

Conclusion:  The President of the United States should not be subject to subpoenas from special prosecutors because he is too busy to deal with them.

Now, one can only wonder what James Madison and Alexander Hamilton would make of that.  I suppose that they would be worried that a deceitful, underhanded grifter of a demagogue would take that logic and think he was above the law. Whew!  Thank goodness that’s only a hypothetical!

See how begging the question works?  It’s really quite simple, once you get past the difficulties arising from its misleading name.  A better label is “circular reasoning,” and I think that Critical Thinking Teachers the world over should universally adopt it in favor of “begging the question.”  I’ll suggest it at our next meeting.

And as for my hunch that some poor devil would mistakenly label something as “begging the question”? Well, sure enough, the next day, while sipping coffee and eavesdropping on the more interesting conversations of the other people at my local café, I heard the hipster at the table next to me cry out, “He’s just begging the question! We still don’t know if he talked to anyone about Mueller!”

I think you really should be proud at me at this point, because I’ll have you know that I did not turn around and correct the young man.  All I did was register a barely audible “tsk.”  I know.  I am a Christian martyr.

©2018 D. R. Miller

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2 Responses to “Begging His Pardon”

  1. janellecousino Says:

    Very entertaining. I’ll banish “begging the question” from my usual banter from now on. Wouldn’t want to get a ‘tsk’ Thanks for the fun lesson.

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