David R. Henderson  

Lis Wiehl: Begging the Question on Prostitution

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In recent years I've noticed more and more people misusing the terms "begging the question" or "begs the question." They use it as if "begging" and "begs" are synonyms for "raising" and "raises." But "begging the question" has a specific meaning: it means "assuming as given that which is to be shown."

When I point that out to people, they often get it and, quite reasonably, ask for an example in actual conversation, not just in a hypothetical conversation, of someone begging the question. Watching John Stossel's show last night, I saw the cleanest example of begging the question that I've seen in years.

Stossel was having a legal prostitute from Nevada debate Fox News legal analyst Lis Wiehl on whether prostitution should be legal. Wiehl was saying it shouldn't be. The issue at hand was NOT whether existing laws against prostitution should be enforced: it was whether there should be such laws. That was clear to all three participants.

At a number of key points, after the prostitute had made a cogent argument, Stossel would turn to Wiehl and say, "OK, what's your argument against that? Why should prostitution be illegal?" Two or three times, in response to that question, Wiehl answered "Public policy."

Now that's a reasonable answer if you're a prosecutor, as Wiehl had been, and you're called on to enforce existing law. But, as I noted above, that was clearly not the issue being debated. The issue being debated was whether there should be laws against prostitution. In other words, the issue being debated was what public policy should be. Wiehl justified the particular public policy--a ban on prostitution--by arguing that the justification for that public policy is that it's public policy. That's begging the question.

By the way, nothing in the above is meant to imply that Wiehl is not a good legal analyst. I think she is and, on the "Is It Legal?" segment of The O'Reilly Factor, I find her reasoning on the law more cogent than that of her counterpart Kimberly Guilfoyle. But if this one episode on Stossel is any indication, Lis Wiehl is much better at answering the question "Is It Legal?" than the question "Should It Be Legal and Why?"

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CATEGORIES: Regulation

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Gene Callahan writes:

Two points:

1) The "misuse" of "begs the question" is now far more common than the "correct" use. Which means, like it or not, it is becoming the correct use. In one hundred years, the meaning "circular reasoning" will appear in the dictionary as "archaic." That is the way language changes: for instance, the "correct" meaning of "begs the question" is itself based on a faulty chain of translation from Greek to Latin to English.

2) Could Wiehl perhaps have meant "public policy" as a shorthand for "It is good public policy"?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Gene Callahan,
1. I know, I know. That’s how language changes. But then we need a new term. Call it a hunch, but “petitio principii” just doesn’t cut it. I guess we could use “circular reasoning."
2. Yes, she did. She’s still begging the question. “It is good public policy” works as answer only if it leads into why it’s good public policy. She said it as an argument ender.

Steve Z writes:


I also bemoan the linguistic shift, but there is a new term available: "assumes the conclusion."

Rod McFadden writes:

In my logic class, many years ago, the professor asserted that the correct phrasing is, "Invites the question."

It shouldn't surprise us that she is better at one than the other. She has an absolute advantage over us non-lawyers in knowing the law. But that doesn't make her a political theorist. One of our problems is that we expect lawyers (and economists) to make arguments that are probably better asked of philosophers, ethicists, and political theorists. As I've argued numerous times, knowing that X causes Y beneficial effect doesn't go very far in answering the question of whether we should thus do X. It isn't irrelevant to the question but we need to be careful of assuming it is all that significant. Economists would be wise to heed this - and lawyers too. Otherwise they will look like the person you discuss.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Grover Cleveland,
She didn’t do well even at “X causes Y.” Hers was basically “X because X."

Ken B writes:

I gave up this particular fight a while ago, after I gave up on nauseous.
And you can't even explain this joke anymore:
Mrs Johnson walks in on the lexicographer abed with another woman:
"Sir, I am surprised."
"No madam, we are surprised, you are astonished."

Seth writes:

Thanks. I always get confused on 'begs the question' myself. It is not an intuitive phrasing. It certainly sounds more like 'raises the question'.

I notice that whenever it is used properly or improperly, most people get lost anyway, sometimes even the user.

I like Steve Z's "assumes the conclusion". Much more descriptive, though not as mellifluous as 'begs the question.'

I also saw that Stossel show. That also happens to be a common conservative defense against drug legalization. "Why shouldn't drugs be legalized?" "Because drugs are illegal, that's why!" And sometimes they go on to say, "If drugs are legalized, then that'll increase usage of illegal drugs."

Scrutineer writes:

I also bemoan the linguistic shift, but there is a new term available: "assumes the conclusion."

Steve Z, I saw that suggestion over at Volokh, and it's probably the best substitute that anyone will come up with, but I still prefer btq.

Kevin writes:

I actually ran into this a few times when debating live organ (mainly kidney) donation markets with others. Probably a half-dozen times throughout the discussion, a counter-party would respond "it's illegal!" to one of my points. I would simply calmly explain why that was circular reasoning and move on (seemingly with them acknowledging the point). But it would pop up again shortly after, often with the same commentators bringing it up.

Eventually I just called it a day - you can only argue a point so far. When they consistently retort to blatantly circular reasoning, I think you've reached the singularity of irrationality - the point from which rational discussion may never return.

Gene Callahan writes:

@Seth: '"Why shouldn't drugs be legalized?" "Because drugs are illegal, that's why!" And sometimes they go on to say, "If drugs are legalized, then that'll increase usage of illegal drugs."'

I have never, ever seen that argument made by anyone. Can you document even a single use of it?

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