Fallacy: Circular Reasoning

What's the difference between a valid deductive argument and a fallacy? In the case of the fallacy of circular reasoning, the difference is not be as obvious as you might expect. In the fallacy of circular reasoning, which is often called begging the question, you assume to be true what you are supposed to be proving. But that's also true for all valid deductions, where the conclusion (what you are trying to prove) is derived from the premises or assumptions. This difference is that, in circular reasoning, the conclusion is contained in a single premise or assumption, while in a deductive argument the conclusion is derived from both premises. Consider the following exchanges:

Deductive Reasoning (Valid)

Sports Fan #1: What makes you say Australian Rules Football is the most exciting sport in the world?
Sports Fan #2: Because it is the fastest and highest scoring form of football, and whatever is the fastest and highest scoring form of football must be the most exciting sport in the world.

Circular Reasoning (Fallacious)

Sports Fan #1: What makes you say Australian Rules Football is the most exciting sport in the world?
Sports Fan #2: Because it is.
In both examples, the conclusion has been assumed in the premises. But the first argument follows a valid pattern: If P (fastest and highest scoring), then Q (most exciting). Aussie Rules Football is P (fastest and highest scoring), therefore Aussie Rules Football is Q (most exciting). But in the second example, the one for circular reasoning, the conclusion has been assumed entirely (or almost entirely) in a single premise. As a result, the conclusion of a circular argument can be seen as just a restatement of its only premise. It's like saying, "A is B, therefore A is B."

Often, however, circular reasoning is more subtle than this: it depends on an assumption not stated but assumed. Consider the famous argument of the French philosopher, René Descartes: "I think, therefore I am." Descartes has begged the question here, because when he said "I think," he'd already implied "I am" (or how else could he think?). Yet his fallacy continues to persuade people, over three hundred years later.

Exercises:

1. Which of the following is not an example of the fallacy of circular reasoning (or begging the question)?

I like vanilla ice cream because it's my favorite kind.

The charges of physical abuse are absolutely untrue, because the police would never do something like that.

Ralph Nader was the best candidate for president, because he was totally better than any of the others.

They signed Arnold Schwarzenegger to play the lead, because Hollywood can't make an action movie without a big star.

1. Which of the following is not an example of the fallacy of circular reasoning (or begging the question)? You answered:

I like vanilla ice cream because it's my favorite kind.

If we define your "favorite kind" of ice cream as the flavor you like the most, then vanilla, your favorite, is certainly one that you "like." So the conclusion, that you like it, is already assumed in the premise, that it's your favorite. Compare this to a deductive argument like, "I ordered vanilla ice cream, because it's my favorite kind, and I always order the kind I like the most."

1. Which of the following is not an example of the fallacy of circular reasoning (or begging the question)? You answered:

The charges of physical abuse are absolutely untrue, because the police would never do something like that.

How does the speaker know the police didn't do it? Because they "would never do something like that." Sounds like begging the question. Perhaps they didn't do it; perhaps they are innocent of the charges. But using circular reasoning like this will not help to defend them. Instead, arguments should be presented about what was done, or why it would be impossible for police officers to have abused anyone.

1.

1. Which of the following is not an example of the fallacy of circular reasoning (or begging the question)? You answered:

Ralph Nader was the best candidate for president, because he was totally better than any of the others.

The assumption here ("because") is that Nader is better than the other candidates, and the conclusion is that Nader is the best. Unless there is a claim made about why he is the best, which we don't have here, this assumes what it is supposed to be proving, and is therefore an example of the fallacy of circular reasoning.

1. Which of the following is not an example of the fallacy of circular reasoning (or begging the question)? You answered:

They signed Arnold Schwarzenegger to play the lead, because Hollywood can't make an action movie without a big star.

Correct!

This is a valid deduction, with the stated premise of "Hollywood can't make an action movie without a big star," and the unstated premise of "Arnold Schwarzenegger is a big star," leading to the conclusion, "They signed Arnold Schwarzenegger to play the lead." Of course, the wording would need to be changed somewhat to make those three claims fit the form of a syllogism, but it's pretty close as is. Compare this with related examples of begging the question:

"Arnold Schwarzenegger was the best actor for the role because he's Arnold Schwarzenegger."
"Arnold Schwarzenegger was the best actor for the role because there's just no one else who is better."
"Arnold Schwarzenegger was the best actor for the role because we wouldn't even consider second-best!"

Congratulations

You have finished the section on the fallacy of shifting the burden of truth.