Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ve Have Vays of Making You Talk, Part VII: Begging the Question

In Part I of this post, I discussed why family members hate to discuss their chronic repetitive ongoing interpersonal difficulties with each other (metacommunication), and the problems that usually ensue whenever they try. 

I discussed the most common avoidance strategy - merely changing the subject (#1) - and suggested effective countermoves to keep a constructive conversation on track. In Part II, I discussed strategies #2 and #3, nitpicking and accusations of overgeneralizing respectively. In Part III, I discussed strategy #4, blame shifting. In Part IV, strategy #5, fatalism.

This post is the third in a
 series about strategy #6, the use of irrational arguments  (previously: non sequiturs; post hoc reasoning). Descriptions of this strategy have been subdivided into several posts because, in order to counter irrational arguments, one first has to recognize them.  I will hold off describing strategies to counter the irrational arguments until after I have finished describing some of the most common types.

Irrational arguments are used in metacommunication to throw other people. Listeners either become confused about, or unsure of the validity of, any point they are trying to make or question they are trying to ask.  Fallacious arguments are also frequently used to avoid divulging an individual's real motives for taking or having taken certain actions. 

The third major logical fallacy I will describe is begging the questionA person begging the question merely insists that an assertion is proved without offering any proof at all. If someone offers some evidence that the assertion is false, the beggar states that the evidence must be incorrect. After all, since the assertion is true, any evidence to the contrary must be faulty. 

It might seem that the absurdity of this kind of reasoning should be quite ob­vious when it occurs, but it can be quite subtle. Often an inter­vening argument for the questionable assertion is made by the beggar, which is then refuted by the disputer. The beggar then goes on to offer yet another argument, which in turn is refuted. This process continues until the beggar suddenly announces that he or she has won the case - by ignoring all of the previously refuted arguments and merely re-offering the initial unproved assertion.

I first truly understood this process one day in college when I caught myself doing it. I was engaged in a friendly argu­ment with a fellow student over the relative merits of the space program during the sixties. My friend took the position that going to the moon was a complete waste of money, because there were important human needs here on earth for which the money could be used. I was and am of the opinion that scien­tific knowledge is valuable for its own sake, but at the time I was unable to formulate a convincing argument for that posi­tion. Instead, I advanced the oft-used argument that the space program had yielded important scientific by-products, such as Teflon, that were quite useful here on earth.

He countered that Teflon could have been invented for far less money by doing research on nonstick surfaces instead of moon flights. I then countered with, "But this way, we also get to the moon!"

Another time when begging the question was used on me was when I was a trainee (resident) in psychiatry.  Back in the Stone Age when I trained, most of the faculty members were Freudian psychoanalysts.  When anyone dared question psychoanalytic dogma, they were told that they needed to get into therapy to find out why they were "resistant" to the ideas.  Of course, the concept of resistance is itself a psychoanalytic concept, so the statement was in fact begging the question of the validity of a psychoanalytic concept. 

Interestingly, the analysts' short sentence contained not one but three logical fallacies.  It was not only begging the question, but was also a non-sequitur (perhaps the person was questioning the dogma for some reason other than subconscious resistance), and a personal attack as well.  Personal attacks, or ad hominem arguments, are another fallacy I will discuss in a future post.

Begging the question is a maneuver that occurs most often when people are being questioned about their motivation but do not wish to reveal the true reasons for their behavior to others -  or perhaps even to themselves. They may assert that they behave in the way they do because that is how they truly wish to be­have or because they have no other options.

If listeners pre­sent evidence that the behavior seems to be something that is bringing them a great deal of grief or if they offer other options, beggars will then either just ignore what the other person has said, invalidate it by making a snide comment, engage in a game of "why-don't-you-yes-but," or begin the process of-making further refutable arguments and then returning to the initial assertion as if it had been justified.

A good example of begging the question occurred in the case of a poorly educated employee of a large manufacturing concern. Despite a horrendously abused childhood and a lack of formal schooling, he had managed to rise to a fairly responsible posi­tion with the firm. Then suddenly, through no fault of his own, the position was eliminated. Because of further bad luck com­plicated by his own aggravating behavior, he was gradually de­moted and shifted to a department that he despised, and continued to go downhill until he had become a glorified file clerk.

The more responsibilities were taken from him, the more upset he became. The more upset he became, the more poorly he per­formed in his job. The poorer the performance, the more re­sponsibility was taken from him, and so on. He felt that his supervisor wished to get rid of him because he was being paid far too much for his present position, but also believed that the supervisor was blocking his transfer to another department in which he might get a more responsible job.

I wondered why, if it were really true that he was unable to get out of the department and find a job with which he would be satisfied, he did not seek employment with a different firm. I conceded that such a move would be quite difficult considering his lack of education, but pointed out that he had not even at­tempted to look.

He replied that he did not wish to leave the firm. He stated that, in fact, he loved working for this company; it was just his department he despised. I pressed on. I pointed out that he had already told me that he could not get out of the department because of his mean supervisor. Why was it so important for him to stay with the same firm? He replied once again that he would not leave the firm because he loved working for it.  The conversation went something like this:

"The firm seems to be very important to you. What is it about working for the firm that you love so much?"

"They've been very good to me."

"Well, they certainly have been good to you - in the past. At the moment, however, you've told me that they are not being very good to you at all."

"That is the department that is being bad to me. I have no complaint with the firm."

"I know that, but you have told me that you are stuck with the department. Don't you think you might find a differ­ent firm that you would also like?"

"Yes, I might be able to do that."

"So why are you so intent on staying with your present firm?”
"I want to get in twenty-five years with the firm."

"What makes that important?"

"It is important to my self-esteem" [a possible non sequi­tur that I let go].

"So you'll consider leaving when you have been there twenty-five years?"


"So there must be another reason why you feel you must stay with the firm."

"I don't want to give my supervisors the satisfaction of driving me out." [This is another assertion that does not make very much sense. Why should avoiding making them smug be worth daily torture at their hands? I avoided touching on this also].

"Do you really think they care all that much?"

"Probably not."

"So why stay?"

"I've told you. The firm is very important to me. I love working for the firm. Okay?"                                                                          

The last statement was, of course, merely a restatement of his initial position that did nothing whatever to shed light on why the firm was so important to him. This is exactly what is meant by begging the question.

1 comment:

  1. Wow what a nice post. I am impressed from it.

    Thanks for more sharing..............

    Laith Salma