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“Comforts of Matrimony” detail from Library of Congress, P&P Online, LC-USZ62-77409

Fallacy of Complex Question;
Fallacy of Many Questions;
Loaded Question

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.

  1. 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 argument.

    To be a fallacy, and not just a rhetorical technique, the conclusion (usually the answer to the question) must be present either implicitly or explicitly.

    1. 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 unto evidence.

      1. 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 coin …”[1]
        The evaluation of this complex question requires ascertaining the acceptability of the questions (1) “Is Trump trying to undermine democrary” and “ (2) “Is Trump irredeemably vain?.”

      2. 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?” [2]
        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.

    2. If an argument is present, the presupposition of the question is taken as a statement — i.e., it implicitly has a truth value.

      Often what makes a passage with a complex question a fallacy is its involvement of another informal fallacy.

      1. 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?”[3]
        The import of the presupposition of the positive rhetorical question (when viewed as a conclusion) is the negative assertion:
        “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 ignoratio elenchi fallacy (i.e., ignorance of what was to be proved).

      2. 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.

    3. Complex questions are often either “yes-no questionsor “wh-questions.

      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 (or false)?

      Statement p is true (or false).

      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 last?”[4]
      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.[5]

      1. 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:

        1. You are a wife.
        2. You have a living husband
        3. You attend church.
        4. You have a family.
        5. Your family attends church.
        6. You and your family attend the same church.

        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.

      2. 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.

    4. 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 ducklings.”[6]
      The question here, in effect, is written as a statement.

  2. 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.

    1. 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 being committed.

      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.)

    2. 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.

      1. 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 original][7]
        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.”

      2. Richard Whately's influential description of “fallacy” is “any deceptive argument or apparent-argument” [emphasis original][8] 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 apparent arguments.

  3. The following passsages are typical examples of complex question fallacies:

    1. ”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?)”[9]

      (The options prescribed for the characteristics of God are not the only descriptive options available.)

    2. “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?”[10]

      (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.)

    3. “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 them …”[11]

      (Catiline cannot reject Cicero's presuppositions in these questions without rejecting the legitimacy of the questions themselves.)

    4. “[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?”[12]

      (Whether one answers the final question as “yes” or “no,” one tacitly admits that Rep. Ellison is hungry for power.)

    5. “[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 Royce?“[13]

      (The slippery slope implication is what makes this complex question fallacious.)

  4. 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.

    1. Check this distinction with the following examples. Are there any fallacies in the following passages?

      1. “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.”[14]

      2. “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’”[15]

      3. “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.’”[16]

      4. “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.”[15]

      5. “[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.”[16]

    2. 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.

    3. 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

1. Dana Milbank, “Trump Rams Greatness Down Our Throats,” Index Journal 99 no. 286 (29 December, 2017), 8A.

2. Cokie and Steve Roberts, “Women's History Year,” Index-Journal 97 no. 41(March 30, 2015), 6A. Women's History Month is an official U.S. monthly celebration, observed annually, of women's contributions to culture, history and society. The question posed by the Roberts is based on the unwarranted assumption that the emphasis on women's contributions and achievements during Women's History Month exclude recognition of not just women's contributions and achievements during the other months of the year but also that women, themselves, are thereby neglected during the other months of the year.

3. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations trans. George Long (London: Blackie & Son, 1910), 112.

4. Walter J. Ballard, “Questions to Democrats,” The Protectionist 16 (October, 1904), 335.

5. For example, van Eemeren and Grootendorst take this tack and point out the fallacy is “outside the scope” of the standard definition of “fallacy.” Frans H. van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst, Argumentation, Communication, and Fallacies (1992 London: Routledge; Taylor & Francis, 2016), 261.

6. “Up Against the Wall,” Wall St. Journal (June 18, 1979), 22.

7. C.L. Hamblin, Fallacies (London: Methuen, 1970), 12.

8. Richard Whately, Easy Lessons on Reasoning 2nd. ed. (Boston: James Monroe, 1845), 133.

9. Kent Bach, Exit-Existentialism: A Philosophy of Self-Awareness, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1973, 4.

10. Vernon Howard, The Mystic Path of Cosmic Power (New Life Foundation, 1999), 64.]

11. Marcus Tullius Cicero, “First Oration Against Catiline,” Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero trans. Charles Duke Yonge (New York: The Colonial Press,1899), 5.

12. Star Parker, “The DNC's Keith Ellison Dilemma,” Index-Journal 98 no. 282 (January 07, 2017), 9A.]

13. Stephen Moore, “Congress Must Stop Subsidizing Wealthy Car Buyers,” Index-Journal 99 no. 269 (December 12, 2019), 7A.]

14. Frank Caplan and Theresa Caplan, The Second Twelve Months of Life (New York: Random House, 1980), 188.

15. Wall Street Journal (February 25, 1980), 1.

16. Isaac D'Israeli, The Quarrels of Authors (London: John Murray, 1814), I: 193.

17. Paul Lindeberg, “Mailbag,” Barron's 92 no. 31 (July 30, 2012), 193.

18. Kathleen Parker, “Cyborg Mitt,” Index-Journal 94 no. 144 (September 20, 2012), 10 A.

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