Begging the Question: A How-To


“That begs the question”, may be the most generally false assertion in English, at least among those statements that aren’t universally false. What people usually mean when they say it is that something raises a question. That’s a good thing to point out, of course, but it isn’t the same thing as begging the question.

Begging the question is a logical fallacy. It’s a form of circular argumentation in which one basically says that something is true because it is true. It supports the conclusion with the premise and the premise with the conclusion, and the question begged is, “But is it true?”

Katherine Kersten, conservative think tanker and contributor of venomous culture war opinion pieces for Minneapolis’s Star Tribune, has produced a masterwork in begging the question on the topic of marriage equality. It is truly worthy of being used to illustrate this fallacy for decades to come.

As people probably know by now, we have one of those discriminatory marriage amendments on our ballot in November. Kersten isn’t happy about having it described, accurately, as discriminatory. So she first starts by trying to distract us with a slippery-slope fallacy.

I’d guess, for example, that 95 percent of Minnesotans would oppose redefining our marriage laws to include temporary marriages, where the partners’ marriage certificate includes an end date; marriages of three or more people (say, two lesbians rearing their child with a gay male sperm donor), or marriages between siblings in a nonsexual relationship.

Yet how would such marriages hurt anyone else’s marriage? If the individuals in question love and care for each other, isn’t that all marriage is about? Doesn’t love make a family? Don’t people bound by affection deserve the benefits of marriage — and suffer stigma if these are withheld? If you disagree, aren’t you discriminating against others’ “fundamental right” to marry as they wish?

She’s right in that last paragraph, but the fact that people are uncomfortable with and have emotional reactions to the unfamiliar isn’t an argument. It’s a facet of our shared psychology that is only useful in certain environments.

Why do the marriage permutations they describe strike most of us as inappropriate, just as the marriage of two men or two women did until a few years ago? The reason is that marriage has a unique public purpose, which distinguishes it from all other human relationships, no matter how valuable they may be to the people involved.

Marriage has always and everywhere been a male/female institution because it is rooted in biology and human ecology. Across the globe and through the millennia, its public purpose has been the same: To connect men with their children and the mother who bore them, so that every child has a loving, committed mother and father.

Now, skipping over the rank ahistoricality, naturalistic fallacy, refusal to recognize something so basic as a step-family, and rather creepy assertion that men only relate to their children through their wives, what we have here is a simple assertion. Defining marriage as one man and one woman isn’t discriminatory because the definition of marriage excludes any arrangement but one man and one woman. That’s just the definition. 

Did you know that it isn’t discriminatory to call women who speak out “whiny” or “shrill” because the words only apply to those with high-pitched voices? Did you know that it isn’t discriminatory to call a black person a “nigger” because the word only applies to people with dark skin? Did you know that it isn’t discriminatory to call someone poor “trailer trash” because that phrase only applies to people who can’t afford to live in more permanent housing?

Katherine Kersten has just told us that she isn’t advocating marriage discrimination because the definition of marriage she’s advocating isn’t discriminatory. It’s just limited to one man and one woman based on the criteria she uses to define it.

Same-sex marriage supporters are wrong, then, to compare laws enshrining one-man/one-woman marriage to laws barring interracial marriage. Jim Crow-era laws did not challenge the nature or meaning of marriage. On the contrary, they sought to frustrate its natural goods by artificially keeping black and white men and women apart to perpetuate a racist legal order.

[…]

Do traditional marriage laws inappropriately discriminate against people who seek legal recognition for nonmarital, affection-based unions, which can take many forms? The answer is no. It is not “discrimination” to treat different things differently.

Jim Crow laws discriminated because they didn’t use the same definition of marriage she’s using to discriminate against same-sex couples, so she’s not discriminating but they were. The law isn’t discriminating inappropriately because it’s using the same discriminatory definition she says is appropriate. You can tell who’s doing it right because they’re doing what she’s telling you is right.

As long as you never, ever question whether she’s correct about what constitutes “doing it right”.

That, right there? That’s begging the question.

Comments

  1. carlie says

    Not the point at all, but I’ve thought for awhile that this:

    I’d guess, for example, that 95 percent of Minnesotans would oppose redefining our marriage laws to include temporary marriages, where the partners’ marriage certificate includes an end date;

    would actually be a good idea. Make marriage licenses renewable the way every other kind of license is, so that every 5 or 10 years you have to actively reassert that you want to be in this relationship. If you don’t, the marriage dissolves in a much easier fashion than divorce proceedings currently are. Might make more people actually pay attention to their marriages, and would make it more clear that it’s a long term effort, not a state of being.

  2. SherryH says

    carlie says: “If you don’t, the marriage dissolves in a much easier fashion than divorce proceedings currently are.”

    Actually, my understanding is that dissolving a long-term relationship without divorce proceedings is far from easy. In fact, I’ve seen that cited as a reason in favor of same-sex marriage – it gives some rules or standards to work by if the partners separate.

    Division of property, especially investments and real property. Custody of minor children, or even family pets. As someone about to go through the dissolution of a nearly-twenty-year marriage, I’m dreading the sorting and splitting of twenty years’ worth of commingled STUFF: books and CDs, pots and pans and towels. And we have the advantage of the legal system to help us deal with it and make sure neither of us is left destitute or kept from seeing the kids.

    If we were not legally married, I don’t believe the court system would be willing or even able to step in and help sort things out.

    That isn’t to say I disagree with the idea of limited-term marriage contracts that would have to be renewed or expire, just that there would be a lot of ancillary stuff that would have to be sorted beyond just, “do you still love this individual and want to remain married to them?”

  3. Ruth says

    “Make marriage licenses renewable the way every other kind of license is, so that every 5 or 10 years you have to actively reassert that you want to be in this relationship. If you don’t, the marriage dissolves in a much easier fashion than divorce proceedings currently are.”

    Actually, no, it wouldn’t be easier. What happens to shared property, joint bank accounts and children when the marriage ‘lapses’? The sensible thing is to make divorce fairly straightforward, while making sure that the divorce process deals with these issues.

    The idea of fixed-term marriage used to be very popular with science-fiction writers, but it doesn’t actually make any sense, because it doesn’t fit with how relationships actually work. Yes, not all relationships last for life, which is what marriage was originally supposed to dictate, but how many people could say, at the point when they get married, exactly how long it WILL last? Having a fixed, 5 year term, or a contract that has to be renewed every 5 years, doesn’t help the couple who want to break up after 3 years, or after 8 years, for that matter.

  4. shari says

    There are many practical reasons for marriage. There are fewer practical hindrances (the penalty tax comes to mind) than there used to be. Katherine Kerstan irritates me in general.

    I am so on board with a legal marriage definition that is – two adult people of non-family-of-origin-affinity (I made that term up as I can’t remember the real words, I am mentally already wiped out…)in a legally protected, binding relationship. This is not a slippery slope, and, hello, gay marriage is already legal – people who have not ‘come out’ marrying an opposite-sex friend or partner. Unfortunately, that tends to end in divorce when the straight partner sorts out why the sexual aspect is not what they anticipated.

    If you want to lower the divorce rate, legally allowing gay marriage with the same legal protections might actually help!!

  5. Rick Schauer says

    Steph, Katherine Kersten and her drivel have been the source of “conservatism” at the Strib for years. Her inability to see logic and reason as the cornerstones of intellectual standards is beyond my understanding except to say that she is persistant in her flawed thought processes. I suspect she may have been dropped on her head when she was young thus voiding any hope of her ever moving beyond her bigotry of hate, discrimination and otherwise biased xtian worldview. She has eyes yet cannot see – as the blind, blindly lead the blind.

  6. A nym too says

    Lesbians marrying gay men, and raising kids as a triad? WTF is she smoking?

    Also, are there no legal rights for common-law/de facto relationships in the US? It’s where couples who have been living together for X years (in sin!) are afforded certain legal rights.

  7. says

    I respectfully disagree with the writer’s statement as being against same sex marriage. I don’t see how gay marriage is in any way, shape or form a threat to traditional marriage. If one thinks how others marry is threatening their marriage then their relationship is pretty weak to begin with.

  8. F says

    Also, are there no legal rights for common-law/de facto relationships in the US?

    Not “in the US” – there are no Federal laws on this. Some states have laws of various meanings and quality regarding “common law marriage”, but these are not dependable and of questionable value when a relationship goes to court. Or to visit in a hospital. Or, variously, whatever. Further, this only adds a probationary period type of requirement to those who cannot marry directly. So you end up with less than the rights of a legally married couple, maybe, after you have lived as a family for five (or whatever) years. Not so much help, really.

    Back in the ’90s, IIRC, Ohio killed it’s common law marriage statute (the exact nature of which I am not clear on) only to reinstate it some years later. For all I know, it has been removed again.

  9. A nym too says

    By “in the US” I meant anywhere in the United States individually, not collectively. I did not think anyone would be sufficiently pedantic as to require me to list them directly. I live and learn.

    Hospital visiting rights in the UK are not based in draconian bigotry. If the patient wants X to visit them, they visit them. No family tree or marriage certificate necessary. If I say “This is my [same sex] partner (or civil partner)” it’s unlawful to treat us any differently than a heterosexual couple. Such are the perks of living in NotAmerica.

    I have to admit (given the situation in Each Separate State), after years of having a (nominally) left-wing government, it’s somewhat bizarre to see our right-wing leader not only deciding that same-sex couples are entitled to marriage, rather than the existing civil partnerships, but also effectively telling the Church to STEU about it.

    So yeah, thanks for that ‘F’. Is that an ancient tribal name, or perhaps, a family tradition? Gender neutral. too, how progressive.

  10. msm16 says

    I would just like to point out that gay marriage DOES threaten the marriage of those who are opposed to it. This is not because it actually in any way does but because they a privileged pricks. To them giving their special privilege to gays somehow lessens it.

    So for them they do feel as though their marriage is threatened. This isn’t because it material changes anything but because, again, they are privileged bigoted jerks.

    I point this out not to be pedantic but because the very liberal statement “it doesn’t hurt my marriage,” doesn’t meant anything in this fight. The problem is in their heads and in their heads all that matters is the privilege.

  11. says

    Katherine Kersten still exists? Uffda.

    On “begging the question” I’m afraid the phrase MEANS to ask a question, or more exactly, to say something that causes a “shoe drop” situation in which the shoe is asking a specific question. Meaning does not come from pundits and mavens, it comes from semiotic process among symbol makers and interpreters. But technically, yes, it means what you say it means to a small number of people.

    The way I like to suggest remembering its meaning is this: Think of it as an old fashioned phrase that uses a word that has morphed or mutated over time, and what is *really* being said is “Buggering the question” which one does by supplying the answer you are forcing in the question itself.

    Regarding marriage: I do think there is a proper “naturalistic” and historical way to think of marriage. I happen to be writing about that at the request of some politicians in Minnesota. Stay tuned.

  12. Tyrant of Skepsis says

    (And yes, by saying “It means what it means” I may have been begging the question!)

    Begging the question is very useful in several ways as a dishonest debate tactic, because you can portray those who disagree with you as holding nonsensical positions. For example, if you argue that gay marriage should be illegal because marriage means what it means, and someone disagrees, you can counter: “So you are honestly arguing that it doesn’t mean what it means?, thus exposing opponent to cheap ridicule. Repeat this often enough, and you might just win the debate.

  13. jamessweet says

    Regarding Greg’s point about the meaning of “begging the question” having changed: I have a friend who makes a similar argument, and while I see your point, I feel rather strongly that the phrase should be avoided in both of its meanings. The original meaning will confuse far too many of your readers; and the new meaning will, at a minimum, seriously annoy a non-trivial fraction of your readers, and may even cause some temporary confusion (I always have to read a sentence twice to make sure I know in which sense the author intended it).

    It is a phrase that evolved from one very specific meaning to a completely different and much vaguer meaning, and as such it is hopelessly polluted. For the clearest possible communication, always choose a different phrase.

  14. says

    I almost never name a fallacy when I talk about it, with the exception of the rare true ad hominem, which does move me to Latin. I find it much more useful to specifically point out where the break in logic occurs. Also avoids most of the “Is not! Is so!” arguments.

  15. daenyx says

    Thank you, thank you, thank you – misuse of the phrase is one of my major language pet peeves.

  16. says

    Jamessweet [15] I tend to agree that in a case like this where a term has two very different (sometimes opposite) meanings, pragmatically, it may be best avoided. I’m not sure the newly evolved meaning is vague, though. Sort of begs the question as to what is meant by “vague” exactly.

    Stephanie [16] “I almost never name a fallacy when I talk about it”

    Does doing that have a name and a Wikipedia entry yet????

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