Begging the Question

Question begging has to be the most prevalent of the logical fallacies. It’s also my experience that few people actually know that it means. It does not mean "raises the question," which error I hear all the time.

So, assuming you’ve done your homework, above, see if you can detect the logical fallacy in the following claim:

– We must maintain a government, precisely because of the need to respond to natural catastrophes like Katrina.

Here’s a hint, below, and I publish in its entirety because Cosh refuses to get a decent blogging service and his "permalinks" go bad after a while.

I’ve been ducking Katrina coverage this week after
saturating myself in it (didn’t want to say "swimming" or
"drowning") for the week before. I gather from the squealing at Hit
& Run that some people are proclaiming the occasion to be a pretty sharp blow to laissez-faire,
libertarianism, minarchism, anarcho-capitalism, classical liberalism
or whatever you want to call the general idea of less bloated, less intrusive,
less grasping, less powerful government.

So let’s just recap briefly, shall we? We’ve got a million
or so human beings living in a low-lying area created in the first place by
government engineers. The local government of New Orleans, apprised of an
approaching storm, summarily orders everybody out of the city about 36 hours
too late without lifting a finger to provide the means to do so. At the last
minute it occurs to somebody to herd those left behind into a large
government-built structure, the Superdome; no supplies are on hand for its
inhabitants, and the structure itself is rendered — according to the
government’s assessment — permanently useless. Even though the storm misses the
city, government-built levees fail in unforeseen and catastrophic ways. Many of
the New Orleans cops opportunistically quit their jobs, many more simply fail
to show up for work, others take the lead in looting supplies from storm-stricken
neighbourhoods, and just a few have the notable good grace to shoot themselves
in the head. The federal government announces that assistance is on its way,
sometime; local and state authorities–who have the clear-cut burden of
"first response" under federal guidelines nobody seems to have
read–beg for the feds to hurry up while (a) engaging in bureaucratic
pissing-matches behind the scenes and (b) making life difficult for the private
agencies who are beating the feds to the scene. Eventually the federal
government shows up with the National Guard, and to the uniform indignation and
surprise of those who have been screaming for it, the Guard turns out to have a
troubling tendency to point weapons in the general direction of civilians and
reporters. I’m not real clear on who starts doing what around mid-week, but the
various hydra-heads of government start developing amusing hobbies;
confiscating guns from civilians, demanding that photographers stop documenting
the aftermath of America’s worst natural disaster in a century, enforcing this
demand by seizing cameras at gunpoint, shutting down low-power broadcasting
stations in shelters, and stealing supplies from relief agencies and private
citizens. In the wake of all this, there is probably no single provision of the
U.S. Constitution left untrampled, the Posse Comitatus Act appears destined for
a necktie party, and the 49% of Americans who have been complaining for five
years about George W. Bush being a dictator are now vexed to the point of utter
incoherence because for the last fortnight he has failed to do a sufficiently
convincing impression of a dictator.

It’s been said that
Hurricane Katrina has confirmed pretty much everybody in his
pre-existing political beliefs. I can’t say the record gives me any reason to
change mine. But if I can’t have a libertarian paradise where state power
defers to social power, or use recent events to urge others to the wisdom of
such a state of affairs, I’m willing to propose a second-best for America:
replace the three branches of republican government with permanent joint rule
by Wal-Mart and the Salvation Army. Go on, tell me you could honestly do worse.

(via Beck)

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. Colby Cosh on September 14, 2005 at 02:30

    I liked it too.

  2. Kris on September 13, 2005 at 21:32

    Great post.

  3. Eko on September 14, 2005 at 15:55

    so, when will you guys kick dubya out of office? we the sensible citizens of the third world it's been long overdued..

  4. punditz on September 14, 2005 at 10:36


  5. Chris @ Deliberate Chaos on September 15, 2005 at 10:19

    Excellent post.

    There was poor planning all around, especially at the local and state levels. Too bad the local and state governments didn't have the foresight to imagine that sending people to the Superdome (and Convention Center) might require supplying them with food. (Or that the state's decision to block relief organizations from supplying the evacuees with water could lead to death).

    The focus on FEMA's supposed failures is silly. Most of the first responders to any disaster will be local officials. If one really examines FEMA, one will see that it is a bureaucracy that is set up to process disaster relief claims from citizens affected by natural disasters. As a bureaucracy, it is bound by its government rules and nature. It isn't designed to act quickly unlike the military. It is designed to generate and process paperwork.

    There are lots of FEMA workers right now sitting at a desk with a laptop filling out claim forms for evacuees as you read this. These forms are being transmitted to other office workers who process the claims. A manager someplace reviews and approves the claim. It's isn't sexy like most people think it is.

    Most of the cool rescue stuff gets done by the Coast Guard, cops, firefighters, and others trained to routinely do search and rescue work.

    Too bad people don't realize that blaming FEMA for the failures of the local and state governments is a lot like blaming the U.S. Department of Education if a school doesn't open on the first day of classes because teachers fail to show up.

    Failure happens everywhere. People are fallable.

    Remember France and its response to a massive epidemic of elderly people dying alone in the heat because the nation was on vacation? I guess they didn't have a French version of FEMA to kick around.


  6. Doug Wolf on September 16, 2005 at 01:31


    The logical fallacy of the statement is that it implies that "government" is the only way (or even the best way) to respond to a natural catastrophe. The premise indirectly includes the claim that the conclusion is true.

    It's like saying "Charley, you must give me money so that I can perform services that only I can provide for you." It implies that I am providing services that you can't obtain anywhere else, when I plainly have showed no such evidence.

    — DW

  7. saltypig on September 16, 2005 at 00:03

    of all the limp-wristed baloney… you do that big setup about fallacies, and then you don't have the balls to stake a claim? c'mon, i'm just dying to hear you say that the "answer" is petitio principii. go on record already. that whole setup should be blasted out of the water, but at least go explicit on us. vague BS. ugh.

    c'mon. state it! what a cheap technique, this "it's so obvious that i'm going to test 'my readers'" crap.

    what is "the logical fallacy" in "We must maintain a government, precisely because of the need to respond to natural catastrophes like Katrina."?

  8. Rich on September 16, 2005 at 14:41

    Doug Wolf's answer was quite sufficient.

  9. saltypig on September 16, 2005 at 14:23

    rich? no answer?

    what is "the logical fallacy" in "We must maintain a government, precisely because of the need to respond to natural catastrophes like Katrina."?

    please name it, based on the "homework" you assigned.

  10. Rich on September 17, 2005 at 07:48

    Look, Mr. Hardman, if you want to dialog with me, on my blog, then you will do so in a civil tone, or not at all.

  11. Kyle Bennett on September 17, 2005 at 07:59


    It's not petitio principii, its begging the question. Rich answered it in his title. Your recasting of the issue contains exactly the same fallacy. So what? What, specifically and exactly, do you have up your ass that's making you act like such a jerk?

  12. Rich on September 17, 2005 at 09:40


    I believe 'petitio principii' is the technical or latin term for 'begging the question.' At any rate, the reason that the assertion:

    – We must maintain a government, precisely because of the need to respond to natural catastrophes like Katrina.

    …is begging the question is because the (or one of the) underlying premise being assumed is that government is the only viable way of responding to such things (that's always the premise with government, bu its very nature). The "argument" then simply assumes the government's effectiveness as a given and excludes other possibilities. So, we're left wanting.

    You may be able to state the assertion in such a way as to make it more obviously question begging, or, the assertion as it stands might touch on other fallacies as well.

    I really don't know what Hardman is getting at, but I wish he'd just get there, in a civil manner.

  13. Kyle Bennett on September 17, 2005 at 10:46


    I googled this, and some sites make a distinction between PP and begging, while some sites use them synonomously. I lean toward making a distinction. In PP, the premise is simply restated in the conclusion. The form of the argument is invalid, it is empty of content. It is rhetorical error.

    Begging is more along the lines of improperly using a general statement based on the conclusion to prove the conclusion. It's more of an induction error, in that the generalization is not properly arrived at. It can be a valid argument, but only if the general premise can be shown independent of the specific conclusion.

    PP: Triangles have angles suming to 180 degress because the sum of the angles in a triangle is 180.

    Begging: This triangle's angles total 180 degrees because the sum of the angles in all triangles total 180. (Using this triangle's assumed measurments as the basis for the general premise is a begging fallacy, using a geometric proof to prove the general – for all triangles – and then using that to show it is true for this triangle is valid deduction.)

    By this, your example is begging, not PP.

    I'm sure hardman can correct me if I am wrong, and if he is willing to actually contribute something rather than just bitch and moan.

  14. saltypig on September 17, 2005 at 00:28

    oh, i'll bet it's "quite sufficient", since you obviously don't want to go on record identifying "the logical fallacy" you've only implied is petitio principii. don't feel like getting bogged down in too much "homework", rich? LOL. typical poser.

    since you refuse to step up and answer the same condescending challenge you placed to those reading your blog, maybe you can identify "the logical fallacy" in the following syllogism:

    it's necessary to respond to natural catastrophes like katrina.
    free enterprise is the best response to natural catastrophes like katrina.
    therefore, free enterprise is necessary.

    what's "the fallacy"? have you even started to see the mess you've created with your "raises the question" peeve? doug's response didn't answer the question of which specific (as in "the"), named fallacy you assert is in the sample you gave. won't you? do you claim that it's petitio principii? if not, which is it? why won't you answer the question that doug didn't?

  15. Kyle Bennett on September 17, 2005 at 15:32

    "kyle's quoted or original invention of a difference between the two is not valid, nor does it add clarity. the examples are terrible. "I lean toward making a distinction." oh, good.

    This remark also fails to add clarity. Are you saying that the two concepts are both invalid? That one is and one isn't? That there is no difference between the two and I am needlessly multiplying entities? That they are both valid and distinct but that I am using the wrong terms for them?

    Some clarity would be nice, indeed.

  16. saltypig on September 17, 2005 at 13:30

    the only reason i use the term petitio principii in this discussion is to separate it from the confusion associated with the phrase "begging the question". given the setup here, i obviously intend no difference between the two. anyone who does is simply adding more confusion. some argue that petitio principii is misnamed, but that's not relevant here. beyond that, kyle's quoted or original invention of a difference between the two is not valid, nor does it add clarity. the examples are terrible. "I lean toward making a distinction." oh, good.

    thanks, rich, for finally stating your opinion on the matter beyond mere implication. you demonstrated that in the midst of raising a peeve (misuse of the phrase "begging the question"), you not only do not understand petitio principii fallacy (which your example does not suffer from), but have fallen to the common misunderstanding you denigrate in your peeve alert. you even state above, "So, we're left wanting."

    quoting you: "It does not mean 'raises the question,' which error I hear all the time."

    yet your analysis rises to nothing but that. "So, we're left wanting." you have stepped fully into your own peeve.

    the example is a simplistic, ineffective, untrue argument, granted. however, the mere leaving of essential information out of an argument, or presuming something in a premise (whether true or false), is not petitio principii. the conclusion must at least be implied (i.e., not simply be assumed indirectly by an observer) in one of the premises. contrary to doug's claim and the implications of others, no premise in this example includes the claim that the conclusion is true, directly or indirectly.

    your example: "We must maintain a government, precisely because of the need to respond to natural catastrophes like Katrina."

    …may be syllogized:

    explicit premise: it's necessary to respond to natural catastrophes like katrina.
    implicit premise: government is the best response to natural catastrophes like katrina.
    explicit conclusion: government is necessary.

    changing only one term, throughout:

    premise: it's necessary to respond to natural catastrophes like katrina.
    premise: free enterprise is the best response to natural catastrophes like katrina.
    conclusion: free enterprise is necessary.

    pick whatever argument you consider weakest (internally, they are identical). where in either premise of that is the conclusion stated or implied? without further context, the form and material of the provided samples compose primarily a presumptuous argument. find whatever fallacies in it you may, petitio principii isn't there.

    context is crucial. was the maker of the post's claim responding to the question, "why is it that you think government handles emergencies better than free enterprise?" in that case, yes, the argument can reasonably be claimed tainted by petitio principii in a premise. as supplied though, it's not.

    a simple way to describe petitio principii argument is that it doesn't go outside itself for proof, as in this version of the christianity classic: "we can know that the bible is true because it came from god. we know this because he explicitly tells us so himself, in the bible."

    the presumption in the katrina example isn't true, nor is it defended; however, it does go outside the argument for its proof. yes, it fails. yes, it's ultimately fallacious. but the proposition to be proved isn't present in either premise.

  17. Meryl on December 24, 2007 at 10:04

    I appreciated Charlie's questioning, and was hoping it would lead to clarification. I did not find the example to be at all clear. I was disappointed when the responses attacked how Charlie made his point and affirmed that the point was in fact clear. It wasn't clear to me, and the responses sound more defensive than logical.

    I don't know more about begging the question after reading this post than I did before.

    I'm not endorsing Charlie's approach, but I do share his confusion about how the example illustrates begging the question. It seems to me that a better example would be: "Government has an obligation to protect citizens during disasters. That didn't happen during Katrina, so government needs to be strengthened." The question that remark "begs" is whether government does or doesn't have such an obligation.

    Any clarification is welcome.

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