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Philosophy 203: Scientific Reasoning
Fallacy of Complex Question

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 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 or a question.  Usually it's just the fallacy of giving a question that assumes something not generally granted or given unto evidence.
  3. If an argument is present, the question, itself, must be considered as a statement, i.e., it implicitly has a truth value.
  5. The informal structure of the fallacy is usually similar to the following.

    How (or why) is statement p true (or false)?
    Statement p is true (or false).

  6. The problems associated with both the fallacy and the rhetorical techniques of complex question are involved with "dividing the question" in law or rules of order. This kind of presupposition is also used in arguments for a "line-item veto."
  8. Occasionally, the fallacy of complex question is simply an unwarranted assumption in an argument and the passage is not presented as a question.

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 involve arguments.

  1. E.g., a prosecutor demands from a defendant, "Did you commit the murder before or after you bought the soft drink?"

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. Consider what is being assumed in the following question: "What church do you and your husband attend?"  The main assumptions can be unpacked as follows.

    1. You attend church.

    2. You have a family.

    3. Your family attends church.

    4. You and your family attend the same church.

III. 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?) 
    Kent Bach, Exit-Existentialism, 14.

    How can we save our country from the bureaucratic dictatorship, the corruption, and the creeping socialism of the present administration? Only one way: vote Independent.

    "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? No one."  Vernon Howard, The Mystic Path of Cosmic Power (New Life Foundation, 1999), 64.

    The students bring not only money but also the air of sophistication and cosmopolitanism that mark so many of New England villages. How else to explain the prosperity of Hadje's Persian Restaurant out on Rout 9 between the cornfields and the roadside tomato stands, or the shop clerks' discussion Thoreau over tables of Shetland sweaters?"  New York Times, Travel Section.

    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." "Up Against the Wall," Wall St. Journal (06.18.79), 22.

IV. Nonfallacious examples of complex question are usually rhetorical techniques, as explained above. If a question's presuppositions 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?

  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."  (Source misplaced.)
  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' it own charge system. 'The first question our people are instructed to ask is, 'Is the purchase case?' If it isn't, the second question is "Is this Visa or Master Charge'" Wall Street Journal (02.25.80), 1.

  4. "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.'"  I. D'Israeli, The Quarrels of Authors (London: John Murray, 1814), 341.

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