In Part I ofthis post, I discussed why family members hate to discuss their chronicrepetitive ongoing interpersonal difficulties with each other(metacommunication), and the problems that usually ensue whenever theytry.
I discussed the most common avoidance strategy - merely changing thesubject (#1) - and suggested effective countermoves to keep aconstructive conversation on track. In Part II,I discussed strategies #2 and #3, nitpicking andaccusations 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 aboutstrategy #6, the use of irrational arguments (previously: non sequiturs; post hoc reasoning). Descriptions ofthis strategy have been subdivided into several posts because, in order tocounter irrational arguments, one first has to recognize them. I willhold off describing strategies to counter the irrational arguments until afterI 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 anindividual's real motives for taking or having taken certain actions.
The third major logical fallacy I will describe is begging the question. A person begging thequestion merely insists that an assertion is proved without offering any proofat all. If someone offers some evidence that the assertion is false, the beggarstates that the evidence must be incorrect. After all, since the assertion istrue, any evidence to the contrary must be faulty.
It might seem that theabsurdity of this kind of reasoning should be quite obvious when it occurs, butit can be quite subtle. Often an intervening argument for the questionableassertion is made by the beggar, which is then refuted by the disputer. Thebeggar 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 haswon the case - by ignoring all of the previously refuted arguments and merely re-offering the initial unproved assertion.
I first trulyunderstood this process one day in college when I caught myself doing it. I wasengaged in a friendly argument with a fellow student over the relative meritsof the space program during the sixties. My friend took the position that goingto the moon was a complete waste of money, because there were important humanneeds here on earth for which the money could be used. I was and am of theopinion that scientific knowledge is valuable for its own sake, but at thetime I was unable to formulate a convincing argument for that position.Instead, I advanced the oft-used argument that the space program had yielded importantscientific 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 doingresearch 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 isa maneuver that occurs most often when people are being questioned about theirmotivation but do not wish to reveal the true reasons for their behavior to others - orperhaps even to themselves. They may assert that they behave in the way they dobecause that is how they truly wish to behave or because they have no otheroptions.
If listeners present evidence that the behavior seems to besomething that is bringing them a great deal of grief or if theyoffer other options, beggars will then either just ignore what the other person hassaid, invalidate it by making a snide comment, engage in a game of"why-don't-you-yes-but," or begin the process of-makingfurther refutable arguments and then returning to the initial assertion as ifit had been justified.
A good example ofbegging the question occurred in the case of a poorly educated employee of alarge manufacturing concern. Despite a horrendously abused childhood and alack of formal schooling, he had managed to rise to a fairly responsible positionwith the firm. Then suddenly, through no fault of his own, the position waseliminated. Because of further bad luck complicated by his own aggravatingbehavior, he was gradually demoted and shifted to a department that he despised, andcontinued to go downhill until he had become a glorified file clerk.
The moreresponsibilities were taken from him, the more upset he became. The more upsethe 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 hissupervisor wished to get rid of him because he was being paid far too much forhis present position, but also believed that the supervisor was blocking histransfer to another department in which he might get a more responsible job.
I wondered why, if itwere really true that he was unable to get out of the department and find a jobwith which he would be satisfied, he did not seek employment with a differentfirm. I conceded that such a move would be quite difficult considering his lackof education, but pointed out that he had not even attempted to look.
Hereplied that he did not wish to leave the firm. He stated that, in fact, heloved working for this company; it was just his department he despised. Ipressed on. I pointed out that he had already told me that he could not get outof the department because of his mean supervisor. Why was it so important for him tostay with the same firm? He replied once again that he would not leave the firmbecause he loved working for it. The conversation went something like this:
"The firm seems tobe very important to you. What is it about working for the firm that you loveso much?"
"They've been verygood to me."
"Well, theycertainly 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 thedepartment that is being bad to me. I haveno complaint with the firm."
"I know that, butyou have told me that you are stuck withthe department. Don't you think you might find a different firm that you wouldalso like?"
"Yes,I might be able to do that."
"Sowhy are you so intent on staying with your present firm?”
"Iwant to get in twenty-five years with the firm."
"Whatmakes that important?"
"Itis important to my self-esteem" [a possible non sequitur that I let go
"Soyou'll consider leaving when you have been there twenty-five years?"
"Sothere must be another reason why you feel you must stay with the firm."
"Idon't want to give my supervisors the satisfaction of driving me out."[This is another assertion that does not make very much sense. Why shouldavoiding making them smug be worth daily torture at their hands? I avoidedtouching on this also
"Doyou really think they care all that much?"
"I'vetold you. The firm is very important to me. I love working for the firm. Okay?"
Thelast statement was, of course, merely a restatement of his initial positionthat did nothing whatever to shed light on why the firm was so important tohim. This is exactly what is meant by begging the question.