Fallacies: Circular reasoning and begging the question

Fallacies is a term we use in philosophy to mean that there is a fault in the reasoning. Many fallacies have their own names specific to the fault that they are pointing out. The list of fallacies that exist are exhaustive, but luckily, many of the fallacies are just pointing out how an argument is invalid. So, if you know how to see an arguments invalidity by looking at its logical form and imagining counterexamples, you do not need to know the title of fallacy. Also, many of the fallacies aren’t really faults in reasoning, but more rhetorical tactics that distract from the argument. Thus, in those cases if don’t let yourself get distracted and stick to analysing the actual argument, you should be ok. Henceforth, I will focus attention to the most important fallacies that can easily fly under the radar.

There are two fallacies that exist that cannot be known by just looking at whether the argument is sound, so these need special attention. The first is circular reasoning. Take a look at this argument:

The Earth is round, because the Earth is round.

The premise is true. If the earth is round, then it must be the case that the Earth is round, so its valid. We have a sound argument. But there is something wrong with it. What’s wrong with it, is that the premise is also the conclusion, which is the very thing we’re trying to justify through our reasoning. This is why its called circular reasoning, because it causes you to go around in circle trying to justify the conclusion.

To avoid circular reasoning, the rule is that arguments cannot have the conclusion as one of its premises.

Begging the question

A close cousin to circular reasoning, is begging the question. Begging the question means much more in philosophy than when you hear it in common language today. It does not mean that there are more questions to be asked due to a particular state of affairs, such as ‘this begs the question to why…’ (the correct language here is actually ‘this raises the question’, if you are currently studying or wish to study philosophy academically, do not make this mistake or you will invite the wrath of your lecturers!).

Begging the question, is when there is a premise that is not exactly the same as the conclusion, but would only be accepted if you already accepted the conclusion as true. Consider the argument below:

We should trust that Larry is telling the truth, because Larry wouldn’t lie.

In this argument, we would only accept the premise that Larry wouldn’t lie if we already accepted that we should trust that he is telling the truth. We are trying to justify that we should trust him to tell the truth, but the premise assumes the very thing we’re trying to argue for. Test yourself on these arguments below to see which one is circular and which one begs the question:

  1. The bible is true, because the bible says so.
  2. You cannot do this, because you can’t!

If you wish to ask any questions, seek clarification, raise some objections, or check how you went on the test questions, please write them in the comments section and I will try respond as soon as I can.

I highly recommend purchasing the book ‘Understanding arguments’ by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Robert Fogelin, which is available for purchase in the link below. If you do purchase the book via this link, you are helping support this webpage. Thank you.

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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