This fallacy is committed by attempting to support a claim by presenting a question resting on one or more unwarranted assumptions. The fallacy has the following form:
Premise 1: Question Q is asked which rests on assumption (or assumptions) A.
Conclusion: Therefore, A is true.
This version is like begging the question in that what needs proof is assumed rather than properly established.
Complex Question can also be defined as presenting two or more questions as if they were a single question and then using the answer to one question to answer both. The answer is then used as a premise to support a conclusion. This version has the following form:
Premise 1: Question Q1 is presented that is formed of two (or more) questions Q2 and Q3 (etc.).
Premise 2: Question Q1 is based on unwarranted assumption(s), U.
Premise 3: An answer, A, is received to Q1 and treated as if it answers Q2 and Q3 (etc.)
Conclusion: Therefore, U is true.
This is a fallacy because the answer, A, is acquired based on one or more unwarranted assumptions. As such, the conclusion is not adequately supported.
This fallacy needs to be distinguished from the rhetorical technique of the loaded question. In this technique, a question is raised that rests on one or more unwarranted assumptions, but there is no attempt to make an argument. This is different from a leading question. A leading question guides someone towards the desired answer.
The classic example of a loaded question is “have you stopped beating your wife?” If a person answers “yes”, then it follows that they were beating their wife. If a person answers “no”, then this seems to imply that they are still beating their wife. Logically, if a person never started beating their wife, the correct answer would be “no.” This is because they cannot stop what they did not start.
Defense: The defense against this fallacy is to take care when answering questions, especially when they can be serious consequences. If you suspect that someone might be trying to use this fallacy against you, consider what unwarranted assumptions they might be making as well as whether they seem to ask questions with the intent of misusing your answer. Sometimes you will be able to expose the fallacy for what it is by pointing out the unwarranted assumption or misuse of your answer. In some contexts, the best response can be no response—since almost any answer will be misused. This might lead the questioner to attempt an Appeal to Silence fallacy.
In the United States, police can (as of this writing) legally use a range of deceitful techniques (including lying) when questioning people. As such, you should be on guard against this fallacy when interacting with the police. Even if you are innocent.
“How can America be saved from the socialist programs and job killing ways of the current administration? Clearly there is only one way: vote Republican!”
Professor: “Have you stopped plagiarizing papers?”
George: “Um, Yes.”
Professor: “Ah, that means that you were plagiarizing papers and that you have stopped now!”
Professor: “Well, you said you had stopped. That requires that you had been plagiarizing before. You could not very well stop if you had not started, right?”
George: “Um, I mean that no, I haven’t stopped.”
Professor: “Aha, so you are still plagiarizing papers! If you have not stopped, that means you have been and still are plagiarizing away!”
George: “No, I mean…I don’t know what I mean!”
Sally: “George, you got suckered into that. The right answer is to say ‘no, I didn’t stop because I never started.’”
Lawyer: “So where did you hide the money that was stolen in the robbery?”
Lawyer: “Ah, so you did not hide it. It must then be inferred that you spent it all.”
Defendant: “What, I didn’t steal the money!”
Lawyer: “But you just said that you hid it nowhere. That seems to be an admission of guilt!”
Defendant: “Hey, shouldn’t my lawyer be objecting or something?”
Lawyer: “Even he can see you are guilty.”
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