To beg the question is to assume the point in dispute, i.e., to smuggle into the premisses the conclusion about to be deduced. Begging the question may take a number of forms, which the following illustrations may help to make clear:
(a) One of the commonest tricks of the Question-beggar is to begin his argument with "It is only too clear that . . .," or "It is beyond dispute that . .," "All thinking men are agreed that . . ." — on the lines of Macaulay's Every Schoolboy Knows. In any case, common notions are not necessarily common sense (see Chapter Six, section 2).
(b) A discussion is proceeding on the merits of Means Tests. One of the disputants says: "Means Tests are bad: all these prying inquisitions into a citizen's private affairs are bad." This is begging the question by assuming, or stating without proof, a general rule which covers the particular point at issue.
(c) Again if you were to argue that state subsidies were bad because they offend against sound economic principles, you would beg the question. The reason you give for your opinion is already contained in the opinion itself; for what does bad mean in this context but inconsistent with sound economic principles?
(d) Another method of begging the question is to give, as a proof of a fact, the same fact or its virtual equivalent in a different set of words. Here is a magnificent example quoted by Whately:
"To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the State; for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty, perfectly unlimited, of expressing his sentiments."
This is very much like saying that no news is good news because the absence of information presupposes satisfactory developments!
Begging the question in this way is a common device of speakers when they wish to evade giving direct answers to awkward questions, and of Cabinet Ministers when they are faced with the task of explaining awkward facts. It was an attempt to use this device which drew the famous retort
"The Right Honourable gentleman thinks he has accounted for a fact when he has covered it with a phrase."
(e) A., in the course of a discussion on modern music, makes the sweeping generalisation that all modern composers consider melody a sign of decadence. B. protests, and mentions D— and W—. A. says,
"Ah, but I mean all composers with the true modern spirit." When B. presses him to be less vague, and more explicit, "What is a sign of this 'true modern spirit'?" A., now cornered, lamely says, "Absence of melody."
A. has begged the question; because, in the light of his subsequent interpretation, all that his original proposition meant was, "New-fashioned composers object to old-fashioned methods."
The remedy for this type of begging the question is precise definition of vital terms at the outset to a discussion. Obviously you cannot get very far if you really do not know exactly what the disputed point is.
(f) The question-begging use of the epithets true and sound has been pointed out in examples (c) and (e). In any dispute involving the meaning or application of moral or aesthetic judgments, great care must be taken not to prejudge the issue by using loosely epithets like good, bad, true, sound, real, honest, proper, etc.,
e.g., All good patriots are internationalists, or All people who really love their country support the United Nations.
Such propositions cannot be debated.
(g) When we allow our notions of right and wrong to be determined by our likes and dislikes, or by our individual preferences, we are guilty of begging the whole question of good and evil. This is perhaps the most mischievous form of the fallacy, and has been treated more fully in the chapter on Prejudice.
(h) The question-begging effect of words with emotional values has already been discussed fully in Chapter Three.