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Begging the Question

Introduction

The phrase begging the question is often used to mean “raising the question.” This usage is so common that to call it incorrect is probably pointless. However, you might like to know the history of the phrase as well as its original meaning.

A Logical Fallacy

Begging the question is a loose translation of the Latin phrase petitio principii. The first bit (petitio) comes from the verb peto (to request, seek), which in late Latin also referred to assuming something. The last word (principii) refers to principles or premises. Since principii is in the genitive case, it shows possession (like adding ’s or of). That’s why we can translate the whole phrase as “an assuming of first principles” or “an assumption of the starting premise.”  

Petitio principii is the name for a logical fallacy (a mistake in reasoning), a kind of circular argument where you try to prove something but your conclusion simply restates one of your original assumptions. In other words, you try to prove something, but one of your original premises requires proof.

Here’s an example of a statement that is begging the question:

We want less bureaucracy and political involvement in the economy. After all, big government is bad for business.

In this example, the conclusion simply assumes what has been stated before, namely that government (bureaucracy) hurts business (the economy).

Here is another example of a question begging argument:

Drinking more wine will raise your spirits, because wine makes people happy.

You can see that the conclusion (because …) assumes what has been stated before, namely that wine will make you happy (raise your spirits).

Conclusion

While it’s not a grave error to use begging the question to mean raising the question, the phrase is properly reserved for statements that contain a circular argument.