Circularity and Begging the Question

Chapter Ten
Philosophy 404
Summer 1999

In making our way to an account of the fallacy of begging the question, we must attend to two concepts:

  1. Circularity: An argument is circular just in case there is a premise, either implicit or explicit, that is logically equivalent to the conclusion. That is, the premise and the conclusion must have the same truth conditions. This is a strong condition, and many arguments that might appear to be circular at first glance do not turn out to be so. In many cases, circularity is a problem -- we will call such circularity vicious circularity. However, circularity is not always a problem; for example, one can use it in arguments that are meant to inform instead of persuade, in which case the circularity is virtuous and not vicious. Also, circular reasoning can be used to positive effect in arguments designed to classify some piece of data within a theory. (For examples, consult the book at p. 348.)

  2. Begging the Question: An argument begs the question in a context just in case any objection to the conclusion in that context is also an objection to one of the premises, and that premise is not supported by independent evidence (p. 349). If your difficulty with the premises of an argument is not the same as your difficulty with the conclusion, then you would not accuse the person advancing the argument of begging the question.

The first of these concerns the sentences in an argument: an argument is circular or not independently of any context. All that matters for the purposes of evaluating an argument for circularity is whether the conclusion and a premise have the same truth condition, and this will turn on (a) the syntax of the sentence and (b) its conventional meaning. The second notion, on the other hand, depends on the circumstances surrounding a specific argumentative episode, and specifically, on the context within which the argument is advanced. Note: This distinction between (i) classification of an argument on the basis of the structure and meaning of its component sentences and (ii) classification of an argument on the basis of how it is used in a particular situation is a distinction that runs through this chapter. All the arguments we have looked at can be identified by their structure and the meanings of their sentences: the slippery slope arguments, the ad hominem arguments, etc. (Convince yourself of this, if you dare.) However, whether instances of these argument types qualify as bad or not depends on the circumstances surrounding their employment. In fact, this is related to a central theme of this class: that we can analyze and assess arguments from two perspectives -- the perspective of the thing said, and the perspective of the act of saying.

These notions support distinctions -- circular/non-circular, and question-begging/non-question-begging -- and these distinctions cut across one another. We can demonstrate this with a graph. In this graph, I will give examples drawn from Exercise XXIII in the book. In each case, A is the person who offers the argument and B is the person who A aims to convince. I will develop these examples in detail below.

  Question-Begging Non-Question-Begging
Circular (2) A: "Intoxicating beverages should be banned, because they can make people drunk."

-- Context: B knows the identity behind this and disputes the conclusion anyway.

(15) A: "People with suicidal tendencies are insane, because they want to kill themselves."

-- Context: B doesn't know that a person with suicidal tendencies is a person who wants to kill himself.

Non-Circular (12) A: "The drinking age should be lowered to 18, because 18-year-olds are mature enough to drink."

-- Context: B's reason for disputing the conclusion is the same as teh reason for disputing the premise here.

(5) A: "Gun-control laws are wrong, because they violate the citizen's right to bear arms."

-- Context: Pick your favorite.


Close Analysis of the Examples: Arguments often contain implicit premises, and these are no different. Given this, it is useful to write these in standard form so as to bring out the implicit premises. (Implicit premises: (*).)


  1. Intoxicating beverages (IBs) are beverages that make people drunk.
  2. (*) Beverages that make people drunk should be banned.


  3. IBs should be banned.


  1. People with suicidal tendencies want to kill themselves.
  2. *) People who want to kill themselves are insane.


  3. People with suicidal tendencies are insane.


  1. 18-year-olds are mature enough to drink.
  2. (*) All people who are mature enough to drink should be allowed to drink.
  3. (*) If you are to be allowed to drink, you must be of drinking age.
  4. (*) 18-year-olds are not of drinking age.


  5. The drinking age should be lowered to 18.


  1. Gun-control laws violate the right to bear arms.
  2. (*) If a law violates the right to bear arms, that law is wrong.


  3. Gun-control laws are wrong.


  1. If an argument is circular and is not intended to inform or classify, it begs the question.

  2. An argument can beg the question without being circular.

  3. If an argument does not beg the question in any context, it is not circular.