Fallacy of Complex Question;
Fallacy of Many Questions;
Abstract: The fallacy of complex question makes
use of an interrogative in an argument which assumes something not
contextually granted, something not true, or something not given in
evidence. The fallacy, historically termed “the fallacy of many
questions” is analyzed in its various guises, and many typical
examples are presented.
Complex Question: a question that, by
the way it is worded, assumes something not contextually granted,
assumes something not true, or assumes something not given in evidence.
The fallacy of complex question occurs when the question is part of an
To be a fallacy, and not just a rhetorical technique, the conclusion
(usually the answer to the question) must be present either implicitly or
- The fallacy of complex question is usually (but not always) in
the form of a question. In almost all cases, the fallacy poses a
question that presupposes something not generally granted or not given
- The noted origin of the complex question fallacy is
Aristotle's account of the many questions fallacy:
“In dealing with those who make several questions
into one, you should draw a distinction immediately at the
beginning. For a question is single to which there is only
one answer, so that one must not affirm or deny several
things of one thing nor one thing of several things, but
one thing of one thing.” Soph. El. 181a36
(trans. E.S. Forster).
Not all complex questions involve compressing two questions into
one. When when they do, the questions require separate evaluation.
For example, consider this argument:
“In this holiday season, a familiar question arises:
Is President Trump trying to undermine democracy, or is
he just irredeemably vain? It's a toss of the
The evaluation of this complex question requires ascertaining
the acceptability of the questions (1) “Is Trump trying
to undermine democrary” and “ (2) “Is Trump
- Complex question fallacies containing only one implicit question
require evaluating the appropriateness of its presupposition. E.g.:
“As Women's History Month wraps up at the end of March,
there's something we want to know: Why should half of the
human race be relegated to one month a year?”
The evaluation of this complex question requires evaluation of
the presupposition that appreciation of women's historical
contributions are relegated to one month of the year.
- If an argument is present, the presupposition of the question is
taken as a statement — i.e., it implicitly has a truth
Often what makes a passage with a complex question a fallacy
is its involvement of another informal fallacy.
- Consider this passage by the Stoic philosopher Marcus
Aurelius intended to persuade the reader that we need not ever be
bothered by difficult circumstances:
“If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this
thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And
it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now. But if anything
in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from
correcting thy opinion?”
The import of the presupposition of the positive rhetorical question
(when viewed as a conclusion) is the negative assertion:
The rhetorical question is syntactically interrogative
in structure, but semantically has the force of a strong assertion.
It generally does not expect an answer. A positive rhetorical
yes—no question is like a strong negative assertion,
while a negative question is like a strong positive one.”
Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik,
A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (New York:
Longman, 1985), 825.
“No one hinders you from correcting your opinion.”
This statement does not follow from the material content of the previous
two statements, so the passage in effect is the fallacy of complex
question which utilizes an
fallacy (i.e., ignorance of what was to be proved).
- Even if we assume that anyone has the ability not to be disturbed
by an external event, it does not logically follow that another person
could not disturb that capacity.
- Complex questions are often either “yes-no
Questions which presuppose the truth of only one of the statements
E.g., “Which would you like, coffee or tea?”
Questions with wh words: what, which, who, when, whether:
E.g., When did you drink the last of the coffee?
Who drank the last of the coffee?
The informal structure of the fallacy
of complex question usually occurs within interpersonal discourse
and contains a component similar to the following:
Structure of Complex Question Fallacy:
How or Why is (or When was) statement p true
∴ Statement p is true (or
For example, consider the following passage:
“Why do the Democrats expect the intelligent voters
to cast their ballots for a party whose platform is a series
of negations and contradictions from the first word to the
The passage can be considered an argument only in the context
in which the question itself is a rhetorical question meant to
persuade someone of the truth of a presupposition of the question
which is unwarranted. Otherwise, it should be considered
as an unsupported assertion.
The fallacy is often evident in debate or in dialectical discourse
as a violation of implicit social rules of discussion.
- The problems associated with both the fallacy and the
rhetorical techniques of complex question are often solved by
the technique of “dividing the question” as is
often done in law or in parliamentary procedures whereby a complex
issue is divided into separate issues and dealt with individually.
For example, consider the number of presuppositions in the
following question: “What church do you and your husband
attend?” The main assumptions can be divided as follows:
This question has many unsupported presuppositions, but unsupported
presuppositions alone in a question are not a fallacy unless the
question is part of an argument.
- You are a wife.
- You have a living husband
- You attend church.
- You have a family.
- Your family attends church.
- You and your family attend the same church.
- A similar kind of presumption is also used in requests
for a “line-item veto” seeking to provide an elected
executive authority the power to deny individual provisions of
legislation without vetoing the entire bill.
- Occasionally, the fallacy of complex question is simply an
unwarranted assumption in an argument without the presence of an
explicit question punctuated with a question mark.
For example, the following passage, which contains no explicit
question, examines the problem of redistribution: how to reduce inequality
and wealth among individuals. Should people be paid on how hard they try
or paid according to their natural ability and heritage?
“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
The question here, in effect, is written as a statement.
- The assumption or presupposition to a complex question can
only be known from an evaluation of the context of the passage.
Not all cases where something not generally granted is assumed
are fallacious because not all such passages involve arguments.
- For example, if a prosecutor were to demand from a defendant,
“Did you commit the murder before or after you bought
the soft drink?,” no fallacy per se is necessarily
No implicit argument is being given if the defendant has
previously confessed to the crime, so no fallacy occurs.
(Obviously, the whole sense of the question changes when the
prosecutor is asking the question in order to confuse a tired
defendant who has not previously confessed.)
- The classic question, “Have you stopped beating
your wife?” is a complex question, but would not be
fallacious per se unless explicitly or implicitly the
speaker is assuming without evidence that the respondent does
beat his wife, and this is the very point he wishes to draw
as a conclusion.
- Those logic writers who do maintain that a complex
question, considered by itself, is a fallacy are not using
the term “fallacy” in the sense of a violation
of a rule of inference or a mistake in reasoning. These writers
are using “fallacy” in the sense of deceptive
language. For example, C.L. Hamblin writes:
“A fallacious argument, as almost every account from
Aristotle onwards tells you, is one that seems to be
valid but is not so.” [emphasis
However, many fallacies are so obviously mistaken that they do
not do not seem to be valid to anyone. Moreover, correct inductive
or probabilistic arguments are not termed “valid.”
- Richard Whately's influential description of
“fallacy” is “any deceptive argument
or apparent-argument” [emphasis original] However, deception is only a frequent
characteristic of fallacy, not an essential one. And one–sentence
complex questions, considered by themselves, are, at best, deemed
- The following passsages are typical examples 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 insecure?)”
(The options prescribed for the characteristics of God are not the
only descriptive options available.)
- “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
(Even though no one might be hindering an individual from becoming
self-understanding, it does not logically follow that this lack is
all that is necessary for one to become self-understanding.)
- “When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience?
How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to
be an end of that unbridled audacity or yours, swaggering about as it
does now? … The senate is aware of these things; the consul sees
(Catiline cannot reject Cicero's presuppositions in these questions
without rejecting the legitimacy of the questions themselves.)
- “[Rep. Keith] Ellison will perhaps make a distinction between
his religious convictions and his political convictions. But do we need
yet another left-wing politician telling us that religious values have
no place in the public square — let alone one who will claim what
is good for the public square is exactly what his religion
prohibits? Who is this man? Does he stand for anything other than hunger
for political power?”
(Whether one answers the final question as “yes” or
“no,” one tacitly admits that Rep. Ellison is hungry for
- “[Senator Chuck] Schumer and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi are
the ones who … have been railing against income inequality and
tax cuts for the rich, but now they are head cheerleaders for a bill
that would extend and even expand tax favors padding the pockets of
mostly wealthy Americans who can afford to buy pricey Tesla and GM
electric vehicles. The price tag for taxpayers could reach $16 billion
for this bill. What's next, tax breaks for buying a Porsche or a Rolls
(The slippery slope implication is what makes this complex question
- Nonfallacious examples of complex question are usually rhetorical
techniques, as explained above. If the presuppositions of a question are
legitimately assumed by all parties, and the presuppositions are all
relevant, then no fallacy has been committed.
- Check this distinction with the following examples. Are
there any fallacies in the following passages?
- “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 both.”
- “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’ its 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 Master Charge’”
- “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.’”
- “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 debt.”
- “[Mitt Romney's comments show] Romney doesn't care about
the votes of the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income
taxes and therefore don't care much about his message of lower taxes.
Who knew? Oh the umbrage, the unforced errors. How can we hand
over the presidency to a man who cares so little about those who have
no intention of voting for him? Romney should know better.”
- Again, in your evaluations of passages with respect to this
fallacy, observe the following caution: Often what appears to be a
complex question fallacy might not be so within the particular
context of the issuing of the question. That is, the presuppositions
of the question might have been previously granted by all parties
participating in the critical discussion.
- For an analysis in greater depth (with many more examples and
links to exercises) of the fallacy of complex question see this page
on the Logic section of this website: Complex Question; Many Question Fallacy
Notes: Complex Question