Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic
Abstract: The fallacy of complex question
is discussed, and several typical examples are presented.
I. Complex Question: the fallacy of phrasing a
question that, by the way it is worded, assumes something
not contextually granted, assumes something not true,
or assumes a false dichotomy. To be a fallacy, and not
just a rhetorical technique, the conclusion (usually an
answer to the question) must be present either implicitly
- The fallacy of complex question is usually
(but not always) in the form or a question.
The fallacy involves the asking of a
question that tacitly assumes the truth of a
statement (or occurrence of a state of affairs)
not generally granted or given unto evidence.
- If an argument is present, the question,
itself, must be evaluated as a statement,
i.e., a verbal expression implicitly having
a truth value.
- The informal structure of the fallacy is often
similar to the following:
|How are related statements
p and q true (or false),
where p is an unwarranted assumption.
Statement p is true (or false).
- The problems associated with both the fallacy
and the rhetorical techniques of complex
question often are used as techniques of
subterfuge by persons in authority to elicit
a confession or to manipulate attitudes.
- Although often manipulative, unethical, and
improper, complex questions in the form of leading
questions occur in surveys, law courts, journalistic
interviews, and police cross-examinations. Leading
questions can be assumptive, implicative, or
intimidating, not all of which are
- Assumptive questions are designed to take
for granted the very question at issue. As
a former police interrogator and fraud
examiner states, "Regardless of the
questioner's surety of … guilt, it
would be most sensible to start with [a]
question [that] … assumes guilt, which
makes the job of denial more difficult than
issuing a simple ‘no.’
- Counselors, psychologists, and related
professionals use complex question
as an investigative technique.
For example, a noted psychotherapist writes,
"We therapists have our little cunning
ways—statements such as: ‘I wonder
what blocks you from acting upon the decision
you already seem to have made.’"
- Although some leading questions may be asked
as the discretion of the presiding judge, in
general they are not permitted because they
have been shown to alter testimony. In Hugo
Münsterberg's experiments at Harvard,
"the leading question was put to each menber
of the class—‘Did you notice the stove
in the room?’ (there was no stove
there)—and 59 per cent of the class answered
‘Yes,’ and having once admitted
seeing the stove they proceeded to locate it,
and tell in what part of the room it was."
- Francis Wellman, the famous trial lawyer, writes,
"[I]t is easy to produce evidence that
varies very widely from the exact truth.
This is often done by overzealous
practitioners by putting leading questions
or by incorporating two questions into tone,
the second a simple one, misleading the
witness into a ‘yes’ for both,
and thus creating an entirely false
- Identification of the presuppositions
of a complex question and clarifying what is at
issue has much in common with "dividing
the question" as is done in an application of
the rules of order in conducting meetings:
"(1.) Dividing a question. When a motion
embraces several parts, each of which forms substantially
a separate proposition, the rsolution of it into
distinct motions or questions is called dividing the
(2.) Advantage of such division. It affords
the assembly an opportunity to recieve or to reject what
part it thinks proper …"
- The technique of resolving complex questions
is also similar to understanding the need for a
"line-item veto" where particular
provisions of a list can be vetoed without
rejecting all provisions of a proposal.
- Occasionally, the fallacy of complex question
is simply an unwarranted assumption in
an argument and a question (i.e., an
interrogative sentence) is not present in the
For example, in Barack Obama's primary campaign
against Hillary Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State
Susan Rice condemned Clinton's policy of
Iraq and Iran by demanding an "explanation
of how and why she got those critical judgements
- Rarely, the fallacy occurs with the
presuppositions of the question explicitly stated
in separate statement as in this example:
"Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz
wrote recently: ‘It is the president of the
United States—the same one who presented himself
as the man who would transcend political partisanship
because we were all Americans—who has for most of
his term set about dividing the nation by class, by
the stoking of resentments. Who mocks ‘millionaires
and billionaires.’ Who regularly makes it clear
that he considers himself the president of the
other—the good Americans. How's that for presidential
II. The assumption or presupposition to a complex
question can only be known from the context. Not
all cases where something not generally granted is
assumed are fallacious because not all such passages
- E.g., a prosecutor demands from a
defendant, "Did you commit the murder before
or after you bought the soft drink?"
Here, no argument is being given, so no fallacy occurs.
Obviously, the whole sense of the question changes
if the prosecutor is asking the question just after
the defendant confessed to the murder.
- The classic question, "Have you stopped
beating your wife?" would not be a fallacy unless
explicitly or implicitly the speaker is assuming
without evidence that you beat your wife, and this
is the very point he wishes to draw as a conclusion.
It's difficult to construct this example in such a
way that a fallacy, instead of a rhetorical
technique, occurs. This interrogative sentence,
often used as a defining example of the fallacy of
complex question is not a fallacy unless
it occurs as a premise in an argument.
- As an example of "unpacking"
presuppositions of a question, analyze what is being
assumed in the following example sentence:
"What church do you and your family
The main presupposition can be listed as follows.
- You attend church.
- You have a family.
- Your family attends church.
- You and your family attend the same church.
III. Assorted examples of the fallacy of complex question:
"If a choice must be made, I'll adopt God's
nonexistence as a working assumption. If I am mistaken,
I hope He is not offended by my demand for evidence.
(Many believers seem to think that God is offended by
atheists. Is he overly proud or merely
"When software programs are trying to outsmart other
software programs and hack the world's trading platforms, that
is a recipe for disaster.… How many times an hour are
there failures across individual equities around the world
because of software running algorithms battling each other
for supremacy to make a profitable trade? We have no
"Look very closely. You will see that no person and
no circumstance can prevent you from becoming a self-understanding
man or woman. Who is stopping you at this very moment?
The following passage on the problem of redistribution is
discussing whether people should be paid on how hard they
try, rather than rewarding those with natural ability:
"How hard you're willing to work is powerfully influenced
by how much skill nature has given you and thus how much
chance you have of achieving a satisfying success. The case
for redistribution is not without its troubles: Anyone
who says that what nature has given you has nothing to do
with what you should be allowed to keep must ultimately
answer questions like why couples who produce beautiful
children shouldn't be made to give some of them to
parents who can only turn out ugly ducklings."
IV. Nonfallacious examples of complex question
are usually rhetorical techniques, as explained
above. Again for a fallacy to occur an argument must
- If a question's presuppositions are
legitimately assumed by all parties, and the
presuppositions are all relevant, then no fallacy
has been committed.
- Fallacy Practice: Analyze the following passages and
state whether or not the fallacy of complex question
- "An almost equally exasperating aspect of
the autonomy struggle is the toddler's inability
to make choices. The parent asks whether the
child wants a cookie or a lollipop. First the
child says, ‘Cookie,’ but as soon as
he gets the cookie, he wants a lollipop. The parent
patiently takes away the cookie and gives the
toddler a lollipop, but now the child wants the
cookie again. The problem is that the child wants
the right to choose, but does not want to make a
choice. From the child's point of view, he does
not have a choice unless he can choose them
- "Shoppers at F.W. Woolworth Co.'s stores
might detect one means of a company minimizing its
borrowing needs. According to Ellis Smith, executive
vice president of finance, the company ‘hardly
acknowledges’ it own charge system. The
first question our people are instructed to
ask is, ‘Is the purchase cash?’ If it
isn't, the second question is ‘Is this Visa or
- "Agence France-Presse concluded its story by
noting, ‘Studies have described a rise in the
prevalence of mental disorders in China, some of them
linked to stress as the pace of life becomes faster
and socialist support systems falter.’ There [sic]
is sheer preposterous propaganda. What ’study‘
could possibly prove that stress regarding ‘the
pace of life’ and the decline of ’socialist
support systems‘ (whatever they are) had increased
mental illness? Western intellectuals, very much
including the press, are still in love with
socialism—even its communist variant."
- "Concerning the July 16 Cover Story, ‘The
Euro's Fate’ Is that the best Europe can do?
Print, print, print money; destroy the middle class by
crushing savers and stoking inflation; enforce unnaturally
low interest rates that only serve to provide cover
for irresponsible politicians; destroy the dreams of the
next several generations that will be impoverished with
- "There is a tale, probably apocryphal, told of
that notoriously merry monarch Charles II. There was
a dinner to commemorate the foundation of the Royal
Society. At the end of the evening, ‘with the
peculiar gravity of countenance which he usually wore
on such occasions,’ he put a challenge to the
Fellows. ‘Suppose two pails of water were fixed
in two different scales that were equally poised, and
which weighted equally alike, and that two live bream,
or small fish, were put into either of these pails.‘
He wanted to know the reason why that pail, with such
additions should not weigh more than the other pail which
stood against it. Many suggested possible explanations,
and argued for their own suggestions with more or less
vigour. But at last one who perhaps remembered that
the motto of that great society is ‘Nullium in
verba’ (Take no man's word for it!) denied the
assumption: ‘It would weigh more.’ The
King was delighted: ‘Odds fish, brother, you are
in the right.’"
- "Romney did what he has done when in trouble in the past.
He lashed out. ‘Do you want four more years with 23
million people out of work or underemployed?’ he asked.
‘Do you want four more years where incomes go down
every single year? You want four more years with gasoline
prices doubling? Do you want four more years with unemployment
above 8 percent?‘ Romney was shouting, jabbing his
finger in the air."
- "Bion, that was an atheist, was showed in a port
city, in a temple of Neptune, many tables of pictures,
of such as had in tempests made their vows to Neptune,
and were saved from shipwreck: and was asked, ‘How
say you not? Do you not acknowledge the power of the
gods?’ But he said, ‘Yes, but where are they
painted that have been drowned after their
- " Joe, let's take a look at what is happening
for you in the group. Here you are, after two months, not
feeling good about yourself in this group and with
several members impatient with you (or intimidated,
or avoidant, or angry, or annoyed, or feeling seduced
or betrayed). What's happened? Is this a familiar place
for you? Would you be willing to take a look at your
role in bringing this to pass?"
- "Cutting your next year's budget by 2% but still having
it up 4% from this year and calling it a ‘cut’
is ludicrous. [The suggestion is] our leaders must kick the
deficit-reduction can down the road one more time. I ask:
When exactly will it be a good time to have economic
"Is that the best Europe can do? Print, print, print
money; destroy the middle class by crushing savers and
stoking inflation; enforce unnaturally low interest rates
that only serve to provide cover for irresponsible politicians;
destroy the dreams of the next several generations that
will be impoverished with debt[?]"
13. Wall Street Journal vol. 166 (February 25,
15. Paul Lindeberg, "Mailbag," Barron's XCII no. 31
(July 30, 2012), 34.↩