Category Archives: Begging the Question

A question from a reader

I got the following question from a reader:

>”isn’t it begging the question in favor of religious theism to think
that someone with theological training is an “expert” qualified to have
a credible opinion? After all, if there are no gods, then theology
itself is a field of inquiry with no object to study.”

My first reaction would be this. Begging the question occurs in the context of an argument. It’s hard to see what the argument is here. Second, not many theologians are literally “God speakers” as the name might suggest. Many theologians study religious traditions, texts, and histories. Whether these have a supernatural character remains an interesting question, but it’s hardly the only one. And, at least as theology is studied where I come from (The Land of Jesuitica), that’s not one that gets asked in the theology department. Finally, I wouldn’t know either what is meant by “credible” opinion in this instance. The theologian, as any expert, as a legitimate claim of expertise over a certain material–say, a religious tradition or text–that expertise is not diminished by their being no God–that would be. But the mere existence of theologians does not itself constitute an argument for the existence of God. Some philosophers of mind argue that there are literally no minds at all, merely brains and their processes. Would it be the case, then, that psychologists “beg the question” by their mere existence against reductionism? I don’t think so.

Too often charges of “begging the question” are just confused ways of making burden claims: the person who makes the charges claims that it’s incumbent on the, say, theologian, to prove the existence of their object of study, and until they do, they beg the question. Alternatively, some claim that anyone who does not articulate every single assumption inherent in their view–does not prove their starting point–begs the question. Both of those charges are misplaced and ultimately self-refuting. To the second, no one can prove their own unprovable starting point (and this does not mean they’re all the same), so getting my Cartesian than Descartes will only wind you up in the loony bin (as Descartes himself suggested and as Foucault and Derrida–I bet you never thought you’d see their names here–famously discussed). To the first, argument analysis is best limited to specific arguments. If someone assumes something his conclusion to be true then proves it, fails to prove an obvious assumption, or simply restates his conclusion in different words, he begs the question. If he does not address your objection, he does not address your objection. He doesn’t beg the question against you.

More certainly could be said on this topic. Perhaps another time.

Losing it

Some argue that the surge is working. Some, like Joe Lieberman, claim that the evidence of its not working is not to be seen as evidence of its failure, but rather as evidence of its necessity. He writes:

>Last week a series of coordinated suicide bombings killed more than 170 people. The victims were not soldiers or government officials but civilians — innocent men, women and children indiscriminately murdered on their way home from work and school.

>If such an atrocity had been perpetrated in the United States, Europe or Israel, our response would surely have been anger at the fanatics responsible and resolve not to surrender to their barbarism.

>Unfortunately, because this slaughter took place in Baghdad, the carnage was seized upon as the latest talking point by advocates of withdrawal here in Washington. Rather than condemning the attacks and the terrorists who committed them, critics trumpeted them as proof that Gen. David Petraeus’s security strategy has failed and that the war is “lost.”

Very slowly now:

>(1) the surge has increased the number of troops in Baghdad and other hot spots in order to quell violence of the type described in the passage above.

>(2) if that strategy were working, we wouldn’t see violence on this order.

>(3) we see violence like that.

>(4) the surge is not working.

From (4) Joe Lieberman concludes that we ought to continue surging. The failure of the surge is evidence of its need. When, one might wonder, would the evidence of its failure be evidence of its failure?

Worse than this, Lieberman accuses those who examine the evidence and ask the obvious questions of somehow siding with the terrorists: so the doctor who tells you that you have cancer is siding with the disease.

Binge and surge

**Update below**

I was going to make a post about the fallacy of amphiboly, but then I read Robert Kagan’s “The Surge is Succeeding” in today’s Washington Post. Kagan’s article is instructive in its subtle and misleading use of evidence. In the end he doesn’t so much as argue that the surge is working so much as claim the press ought not to be saying that it’s not working, because it’s too early to tell, so it’s working. That’s a pretty straightforward argument from ignorance. And we’ve seen this sort of thing before from Kagan–given the absence of attacks on the US in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the invasion has stopped terrorism. Well, the acute will notice that the latter is a causal fallacy.

But back to the question of evidence. Kagan’s central evidence for the success of the surge:

>Four months later, the once insurmountable political opposition has been surmounted. The nonexistent troops are flowing into Iraq. And though it is still early and horrible acts of violence continue, there is substantial evidence that the new counterinsurgency strategy, backed by the infusion of new forces, is having a significant effect.

>Some observers are reporting the shift. Iraqi bloggers Mohammed and Omar Fadhil, widely respected for their straight talk, say that “early signs are encouraging.”

There is a puzzling circularity to Kagan’s reasoning here. His evidence for the success is the sentence that follows that reports evidence of the success–not the other way around. For most normal evidentialists, the Press–for which Kagan has no regard (more in a second)–reports things they claim to be happening, and we either believe them or disbelieve them. Not t’other way round. So Kagan ought to write: some observers have noticed a shift, and after considering their authority against that of, say, the White House, and the rest of the world media, I believe them. After all, they’re bloggers known for “straight talk.”

In addition to his strange selection of authorities and the weird and apparent circularity of his argument, Kagan finds time to dig at the press:

>A front-page story in The Post last week suggested that the Bush administration has no backup plan in case the surge in Iraq doesn’t work. I wonder if The Post and other newspapers have a backup plan in case it does.

Zing! Take that fact-reporting newspaper! The Post–for however wrong it has been about this entire Iraq fiasco–does not need a military back-up plan in case the surge works. It’s a newspaper. We hope that it will report when the surge is working. But apparently, it keeps reporting otherwise. Since those are facts friendly to the enemy, the Post must be working for the enemy. Sheesh.

And yet, Kagan writes for the Post.


Glenn Greenwald says what commenter Phil has been saying lately:

>No rational person would believe a word Robert Kagan says about anything. He has been spewing out one falsehood after the next for the last four years in order to blind Americans about the real state of affairs concerning the invasion which he and his comrade and writing partner, Bill Kristol, did as much as anyone else to sell to the American public.


Success is success

A while ago we linked to an Associated Press story that said Bush often uses straw man arguments to advance his views. Since Bush doesn’t read “the filter” he never got the memo. But we think it would be nice if Bush reasoned or spoke coherently enough to commit discernable fallacies. Take a look at the following exchange from yesterday’s press conference:

>Q Quick follow-up. A lot of the consequences you mentioned for pulling out seem like maybe they never would have been there if we hadn’t gone in. How do you square all of that?

>THE PRESIDENT: I square it because, imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein who had the capacity to make a weapon of mass destruction, who was paying suiciders to kill innocent life, who would — who had relations with Zarqawi. Imagine what the world would be like with him in power. The idea is to try to help change the Middle East.

>Now, look, part of the reason we went into Iraq was — the main reason we went into Iraq at the time was we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. It turns out he didn’t, but he had the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction. But I also talked about the human suffering in Iraq, and I also talked the need to advance a freedom agenda. And so my question — my answer to your question is, is that, imagine a world in which Saddam Hussein was there, stirring up even more trouble in a part of the world that had so much resentment and so much hatred that people came and killed 3,000 of our citizens.

>You know, I’ve heard this theory about everything was just fine until we arrived, and kind of “we’re going to stir up the hornet’s nest” theory. It just doesn’t hold water, as far as I’m concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East.

Idiot or not, this is laughably incoherent–especially the last remark. First he makes the “some say” move–“you’ve heard the theory.” But he doesn’t even bother to knock it down. Rather, he turns to his favorite subject–September 11. 9/11 happened even without the inspiration we have provided them in Iraq. That’s true, but it has nothing to do with the question asked. Neither does the hornet’s nest theory (which was, in a sense, Cheney’s theory during the Gulf War I). But nobody had really argued that anyway.

But the question asker–the one with the seersucker suit–kept at it (direclty following):

>Q What did Iraq have to do with that?

>THE PRESIDENT: What did Iraq have to do with what?

>Q The attack on the World Trade Center?

>THE PRESIDENT: Nothing, except for it’s part of — and nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a — the lesson of September the 11th is, take threats before they fully materialize, Ken. Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq. I have suggested, however, that resentment and the lack of hope create the breeding grounds for terrorists who are willing to use suiciders to kill to achieve an objective. I have made that case.

>And one way to defeat that — defeat resentment is with hope. And the best way to do hope is through a form of government. Now, I said going into Iraq that we’ve got to take these threats seriously before they fully materialize. I saw a threat. I fully believe it was the right decision to remove Saddam Hussein, and I fully believe the world is better off without him. Now, the question is how do we succeed in Iraq? And you don’t succeed by leaving before the mission is complete, like some in this political process are suggesting.

Sadly, there is much the logic professor could comment on. But again take a look at the last remark. Bush repeats something of the one-percent doctrine (see below). But he seems to have forgotten there was no threat to us from Iraq (and that Iraq has made the world less safe). We’ll leave to one side the “better off without Saddam” remark and its implicit false dichotomy.

The last remark, “you don’t succeed before the mission is complete” is questionbeggingly tautologous. Completing the mission defines success in Iraq for Bush, but the question is whether success can be achieved in this way, not, as Bush seems to think, whether success is success.

New Rights

A new law makes it a federal crime to cross state lines to avoid abortion parental consent laws. In describing the motivation of his support of the bill, Mitch McConnell, republican senator from Kentucky, said:

>”No parent wants anyone to take their children across state lines or even across the street without their permission,” Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, a Republican of Kentucky, said. “*This is a fundamental right*, and the Congress is right to uphold it in law.”

As I read the Constitution of the United States of America, it doesn’t say anything about parental rights, or parents, or even children. So, I wonder such a fan of “strict constructionists” justifiies this strange new *fundamental* right. Is it perhaps penumbral? Is it somehow emboddied in the other explicitly enumerated rights of the Constitution?


Richard Cohen, one of the Washington Post’s “liberals” pens a column on gay marriage: he’s for it. In arguing for it, however, he makes the following puzzling distinction:

>Gay marriage, like abortion, is a highly emotional issue and, at the moment, commands nowhere near overwhelming support. Depending on how the question is asked, and the polling organization itself, anywhere from 40 to nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose same-sex marriage. If the latter figure is accurate, permitting same-sex marriage by judicial fiat would produce yet another protracted fight over yet another social issue. Roe has been bad enough, thank you.

Then he says,

>Yet the case for same-sex marriage is so much clearer and easier to make than the complexities that produced the tortured reasoning of Roe . It is based primarily on the easily understood and widely accepted words of the Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness .” Since none of the counterarguments can prove any damage at all to society, the New York state high court missed a chance to further an education process and, justly, grant to homosexuals and lesbians the benefits of marriage so casually granted to heterosexuals. Way before getting to 316, it’s clear one of the benefits is as American as apple pie: the pursuit of happiness itself.

It’s hard to appreciate Cohen’s distinction between these two cases: abortion and gay marriage raise fundamental constitutional questions (especially when people organize to deny access to them). It’s obvious to many that gay marriage and the right to abortion follow from simple constitutional principles (and so are the proper objects of judicial review–what he calls “judicial fiat”).

But it’s not obvious to some disproportionately vocal and (at times) violent individuals. They think such things do not follow easily from the foundational principles of the constitution. While they are likely wrong, Cohen ought to show them how they are wrong. Merely claiming that gay marriage, but not (puzzlingly) reproductive rights, follow from the “pursuit of happiness” begs the question in the most textbook fashion: he asserts without argument what he needs to demonstrate.

Begging the amendment

Two guys writing in the Sunday Outlook section of the Washington Post write:

>When conservatives say that we want “conservative” judges, or “strict constructionist” or “constitutionalist” judges, what we mean is pretty simple: *We want judges who won’t make stuff up.* We want judges who won’t view the Constitution as a mirror in which, at every turn, they see reflected their own opinions and policy preferences. We want judges who will play it straight, read the Constitutional or statutory text (our text, not foreign ones, which the court has relied on in cases like last session’s Roper v. Simmons , which held execution of juveniles to be unconstitutional), and apply it as fairly as they can to the individual case before them. [emphasis added].

And we cannot help but wonder whether these two fellows have read the Constitution of the United States. Not be glib, but the Constitution’s Ninth Amendment reads–strictly quoted:

>The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Puzzling. The Constitution says unqualifiedly that the enumeration of specific rights doesn’t mean that other unenumerated rights can be denied or disparaged. Now of course such rights are *not* enumerated in the Constitution–but they are claimed to exist–so one has to wonder how people have been able to say “inventing new rights” (as do the knuckleheads who wrote this piece) without shamelessly assuming the very thing they must demonstrate (that the rights in question are not rights retained). So the Constitution itself says that just because it isn’t in there does not mean it’s not a right.

Strictly construed, in other words, the Constitution does not strictly construe itself.

Conservative as Him

Again on the subject of terms. George Will argues that those who advocate the benching of Harriet Miers betray the conservative cause. He writes:

>Other arguments betray a gross misunderstanding of conservatism on the part of persons masquerading as its defenders.

Sounds like we’re heading towards the bright light of conceptual analysis of “conservative”. Or so one would hope. The closest we get is this:

>In their unseemly eagerness to assure Miers’s conservative detractors that she will reach the “right” results, her advocates betray complete incomprehension of this: Thoughtful conservatives’ highest aim is not to achieve this or that particular outcome concerning this or that controversy. Rather, their aim for the Supreme Court is to replace semi-legislative reasoning with *genuine constitutional reasoning about the Constitution’s meaning as derived from close consideration of its text and structure.* Such conservatives understand that how you get to a result is as important as the result. Indeed, in an important sense, the path that the Supreme Court takes to the result often is the result. [italics added]

Genuine constitutional reasoning sounds very impressive and very desirable, but that hardly seems an adequate (non-question begging) definition of “conservative.” There are 8 justices who would all (one hopes) claim to be doing *genuine* constitutional reasoning in light of close considerations of text and structure (some of them *not* conservatives). Some do it with old editions of the dictionary, others in light of different, but equally well justified, tools of textual interpretation. More fundamentally, since such obtuse originalism constitutes the true “conservative” hermeneutics, Miers might seem to be supremely well qualified: she apparently has a mind that is so blissfully uncluttered with legal theories or constitutional concepts that she can go directly to the original meaning of the text.


Subtle but uncharitable shifts in the verbal characterization of an opponent’s position violate basic principles of rational discourse. Wholesale terminological substitutions meant to achieve a similar result are simply dishonest. And so today George Will writes:

>GM has been forced to allow product development, pricing and other decisions to be driven by the need to keep sufficient revenue flowing in so it can flow out in fulfillment of GM’s function as a *welfare state*.

One has to wonder whether “welfare state” is the proper term for characterizing contractual obligations to employees. But Will uses it three times, so he certainly thinks it is appropriate. Here it is again:

>Herb Stein, the University of Chicago economist who served as chairman of President Richard Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers, famously said: If something cannot go on forever, it won’t. Delphi’s resort to bankruptcy and GM’s attempt, with the cooperation of the UAW, to avoid, for now, doing that, suggest that America’s welfare state — its private sector as well as its public-sector components — is reaching its Herb Stein Moment.

It might also be observed by some that the benefits afforded by those lucky enough to have a GM job far exceed those available to “welfare” recipients, so the term is not only inappropriate (as it suggests that the typical GM worker does nothing to earn these literal (not social) contractual benefits) but inaccurate (the benefits are more extensive). A titillating use of the term “welfare,” perhaps, but question-begging to anyone with a conservative view of language.

Once more into the argument’s breach

Over the past several weeks, the Weekly Standard has been running a series of articles on the evidence for the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were in some significant way working together to achieve their ends. The series seemed to be kicked off by Hugh Hewitt’s subtlely titled “Breeding Stupidity” (Source: WeekStand 7/14/05). Hewitt is attempting to refute two positions on the left:

>The first is that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were not connected.

>[The second] Iraq is a breeding ground for terrorists.

The first is rejected on the basis of evidence and argument that I hope to return to in the future.

The bulk of breeding stupidity involves the second claim, which we have examined in several forms over the past couple of weeks. It involves the question of the causes of terrorism. Here Hewett argues that the “left” does not have adequate evidence for the claim that Iraq is breeding terrorists. Invoking an interesting distinction, he argues:

>The fact that foreign fighters are streaming across Syria into Iraq in the hopes of killing America is not evidence supporting the “breeding ground” theory. “Opportunity” to act is not the same thing as “motive” for acting. There is zero evidence for the proposition that Iraq is motive rather than opportunity, but the “motive” theory is nevertheless put forward again and again.

Distinguishing between the “opportunity” to fight the U.S. in Iraq and being motivated to fight the U.S. by the invasion of Iraq is a subtle distinction. Nonetheless, Hewett doesn’t argue his point, he simply asserts the absence of evidence that Iraq is motivating terrorists.

>As recently as Wednesday the Washington Post account of the aftermath of the London bombings included the incredible–and unsubstantiated in the article–claim that the “the profile of the suspects suggested by investigators fit long-standing warnings by security experts that the greatest potential threat to Britain could come from second-generation Muslims, born here but alienated from British society and perhaps from their own families, and inflamed by Britain’s participation in the Iraq war.”

But, the WaPo cannot be right because Tony Blair rejects this view:

>Blair disputed the idea “that the London terrorist attacks were a direct result of British involvement in the Iraq war. He said Russia had suffered terrorism with the Beslan school massacre, despite its opposition to the war, and that terrorists were planning further attacks on Spain even after the pro-war government was voted out. “September 11 happened before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before any of these issues and that was the worst terrorist atrocity of all,” he said.

Even putting the argument in the mouth of Tony Blair does not make the argument any stronger. As I have had occasion to show several times recently the equivocation between the specific act and the general phenomena makes this argument fallacious as can be easily seen in this quotation.

But, Hewitt offers three further reasons:

>While it is theoretically possible that some jihadists were forged as a result of the invasion of Iraq, no specific instance of such a terrorist has yet been produced.

>Reports in the aftermath of the London bombings indicated that the British intelligence service estimates more than 3,000 residents of Great Britain had trained in the Afghanistan terrorist camps prior to the invasion of Afghanistan–which suggests that the probability is very high that most of the jihadists in England date their hatred of the West to some point prior to the invasion of Iraq.

>And though two of the London bombers appear to have traveled to Pakistan for religious instruction post-March 2003, there is not the slightest bit of evidence that it was Iraq which “turned” the cricket-loving young men into killers. In fact, it is transparently absurd for anyone to claim such a thing.

The first argument is an argument from an absence of evidence. If this is being used to defend the claim that “Iraq is not a breeding ground of terrorism” then it is fallacious–an instance of a fallacy of ignorance. But, charitably and despite the recalcitrance of his rhetoric to logical control, we can take this as a restatement of the claim that the belief is being held without adequate evidence.

The second argument is interesting. Once again, the argument works by showing that there was some involvement with radical and militant islamists prior to the invasion of Iraq, which would imply that that invasion could not have caused the prior involvement. What the argument seems to ignore is that thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of people may have “trained in these camps.” Yet, presumably the vast majority do not commit terrorist acts for one reason or another. So the important causal question, is what prompts particular trained militants ultimately to act? And then, is the Iraq war giving these militants more motivation to act?

The final argument is a textbook example of “begging the question”: The kind of example that we explain to students they will almost never encounter so unsubtely deployed.

Hewitt finishes his article with some speculation as to the motivations for this belief, having convinced himself that there is no evidence in favor of it.

>Of course it’s a convenient stick with which to beat the Bush administration. But it has a far more powerful lure than that.

>As the bloody toll of the Islamist movement grows and its record of horrors lengthens from Bali to Beslan to Madrid to London, the incredible cost that can only be attributed to the Afghanistan metastasis that went unchecked from the time of bin Laden’s return there in 1996 until the American-led invasion of 2001 becomes ever more clear.

The real motivation according to Hewett is to conceal the causal role that four years of a Democratic administration’s “inaction” on bin Laden played in all of the terrorism that has occurred since or presumably will occur in the future.

>Christopher Hitchens sharply rebuked the “motive” school of terrorist psychologists: “I thought I heard you making just before we came on the air, of attributing rationality or a motive to this, and to say that it’s about anything but itself, you make a great mistake, and you end up where you ended up, saying that the cause of terrorism is fighting against it, the root cause, I mean.” [emphasis added]Hitchens’s point, which must be made again and again, is Blair’s point: The killers are killers because they want to kill, not because the coalition invaded Iraq, or Afghanistan, or because there are bases in Saudi Arabia, or because Israel will not retreat to the 1967 borders.

This argument, even concealed under Hitchen’s rambling blather, is unconvincing, as we have attempted to show over and over again. In order to argue that administration policies are not causing terrorism, Hitchens and others retreat to the position that nothing is motivating terrorism. One could argue quite plausibly that Iraq is not the sole cause of terrorism, but the administration’s shills cannot admit this much as it would suggest that Iraq plays some causal role.

Beneath all of the Hewett’s bluster we find that his argument is ultimately and simply the assertion that there is no evidence that Iraq is breeding terrorists. But the absence of evidence does not show the claim is false. If the alternative claims (1996-2000 Afghanistan is the cause or there is no cause for terrorism) were at all plausible, or had any evidence adduced for them, then it might be unreasonable to continue to hold this claim. But, this is as far as our analysis can take us.