The phrase "beg the question" has recently begun to be widely misused, at least in relation to its strict traditional meaning. People now will often say something "begs the question" when it simply raises another question or problem. Such a phrase can obviously have a very wide application. For example, we might say that recent events in the US are undermining democracy and promoting racism. However, this "begs the question," hasn't the US been democratically problematic and racist all along, and aren't recent events simply making obvious what people have been routinely ignoring? Maybe so. However, the traditional or strict meaning of the phrase "to beg the question" means something different. To beg the question means, in a sense, to answer a problem with itself or to make a circular, tautological claim. A simple example that I have seen used in a number of places is: "Chocolate is good for you because it's healthful." At a more technical level we can say that "begging the question" is a logical fallacy in which the conclusion of an argument is assumed in its premise. A good example of such a fallacy that we have probably all heard actively used is this - "God exists because the bible says he does, and the bible is the word of God so it must be true."
The new, now more common use, of the phrase "to beg the question" is fine as far as it goes. It is a useful, practical, everyday phrase and people seem to like to use it. But I think it is good to be aware of the strict definition of the phrase because, though "begging the question" is not strictly speaking, a logical contradiction (rather it's a useless, tautological statement), it is an example of logical fallacy, and logically fallacious statements have taken on special significance in this age of "truthiness." Nixon famously said to David Frost "When the president does it, that means it's not illegal." This is an active and frightening example of a logical fallacy that is similar to "begging the question. Fleshed out, this fallacy would be expressed as "if the president did something illegal he would be breaking the law, but if the president breaks the law he hasn't done anything illegal." Fallacy, contradiction, and begging the question, have all become so ubiquitous in our current political context that it is almost overwhelming. And the danger with this circumstance the existence of the cognitive bias called the "availability cascade." This is the tendency for a statement or proposition to become more believable the more it is repeated. The availability cascade is a dangerous cognitive bias to which we can all to easily fall victim.
When a proposition or system of thought relies only (or largely) on itself for justification we can run into serious social problems. But it is not only lying politicians who are our enemies here. We can become easily deluded about how decisions are (or should be) made. For example, the German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber and many of those who followed him like Jurgen Habermas, have spent a great deal of intellectual power devoted to the problem of the tendency for technical rationality to dominate our important social discourse. Rationality is a system that suffers from a significant internal problem in as much as to justify rationality one must use rationality itself. This means (to use Feyerabend's words) belief in the truth of rationality is a 'pre-rational' decision. Feyerabend's point here actually goes back at least to Montaigne's rational skepticism (and perhaps earlier, I am not sure). But the paradox of rationality (I am not using this term in the sense that it is used in Economics or Games Theory here) is, for most people, a purely theoretical problem. People use rational method and thought to perform all sorts of practical operations and (as with many logical paradoxes) pointing out the problem won't help us in these practical matters. Fair enough I suppose.
However, there is something else going on here that was brought up in a comment to my last blogpost in which the commentator complained that I was "politicizing" childrearing and some things (like, say, childrearing or climate change) shouldn't be politicized. This complaint illustrates, I think, what has become a very widely used logical fallacy and speaks directly to the work of thinkers like Weber and Habermas. The fallacy is that certain areas of thought are somehow beyond socio/political discourse. This is illustrative of the tendency talked about by Habermas for our normative discourse to become colonized by technical-rational thought. A widespread belief is growing that suggests that somehow must simply organize our normative (sociopolitical) structures to facts. This is, of course, just another example of Thatcher's famous TINA (there is no alternative). However, technical-rational questions are largely separate from our normative questions. This is because of Hume's famous IS?OUGHT problem - that is we cannot derive an ought from an is. Even if we can agree on certain facts, that doesn't mean have to design our normative beliefs on those facts. We may agree on the facts of climate change, say, but those facts don't compel us to any particular social policy. (Of course, certain facts will preclude certain courses of action) Even if we agree that human induced climate change will destroy the earth, it doesn't mean that we have to pursue a policy to stop it. The assumption that we should attempt to save humanity is not a technical-rational one, it is a normative and ethical one. We don't have to actively politicize our social/normative questions because they are already politicized by their nature. Though certain decisions are precluded by the facts, those options that are open to us are purely a matter of normative and ethical choice and the effort to portray them as purely technical and rational is not only an attempt to colonize our ethical realm with technicality it is often a disguise for pursuing goals that benefit the rich and the powerful. We might (and should) use certain facts to influence our normative decisions but it is becoming a widespread fallacy to believe that those facts are or must be inextricable from our normative and ethical principles. However, when our politicians are actively lying in open and blatant ways, or when they are telling us that we must act in certain ways regardless of important ethical discourse, the biggest challenge becomes the ability to distinguish facts about the world from the ethical decisions we make and to act appropriately. And that, as the phrase goes, begs all sorts of questions.
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