begging the question?

I need some clarification on two instances of what seem to me question begging. The first example is from moral philosophy; the second, aesthetics.

1. You and I are in dialogue about the viability of a certain moral theory. Neither of us is committed to a particular theory, so we are quite open to accepting what seems to us the ‘best’ theory available. We have no commitments about good and evil, right and wrong; we are looking for a theory that will tell us what good and bad, right and wrong are. In essence, we are committed to not prejudging the matter a priori. I propose a theory, describe its principles in detail, and we exam what it permits, forbids, etc. You respond that this theory is deficient because it permits infanticide and baseless murder.

2. Once again committed to neutrality, this time about what counts as art and what doesn’t, we are now examining a theory of art. This theory disallows certain ‘paradigmatic works of art’ into the canon. For the sake of argument, let’s say that it excludes readymades like Duchamp’s Fountain, all of Pollock, and all art expressly meant to inspire religious devotion. You object that this is obviously a deficient theory of art because it excludes what are obviously pieces of art.

In both of these cases, you have begged the question, right? You have assumed in the first example that infanticide and baseless murder are wrong or immoral (and thus you have presupposed a normative framework that renders these judgments). In the second example, you have presupposed that what has been accepted in the art world actually is art. This presupposes that the art world already has a valid theory of art (or that the art world is precisely what decides the this matter by decree). In either case you have already accepted that a valid theory of art already exists, but this is precisely what our dialogue in example 2 is trying to determine.

Am I missing something here? I ask because I often run across this form of reasoning in survey texts that introduce the available theories of art or ethics.


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Contemporary philosopher.
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4 Responses to begging the question?

  1. Both are and are not question begging. Or rather, they *are* question begging, but don’t they *have* to be? If we are in fact entirely neutral, what makes an ethical or aesthetic judgment possible? Some criterion must exist beforehand for any decision to be possible. Assuming we’re not engaged in dialectics of a post-Hegelian sort (which themselves assume something, viz., that contradictions can be overcome), we need something unconditioned at the top of our chain of conditions. This is why questions like “what is good” or “what is art” are somewhat banal. It’s more interesting to ask: “why is infanticide taboo? why do we call Pollock art?”

  2. plasticbodies says:

    Thanks, Zach. I like this answer, but I also find it unsatisfying because it smuggles in norms when on the surface it purports to be on the hunt for the basis of norms. Even if we alter our approach to the problem and ask, ‘why do we call Pollock art?’, our answer is going to involve an art history narrative which explains why and how Pollock’s art confronted the norms of art theory and largely on the basis of that challenge was initiated into the art world. This still leaves unanswered the question of whether or not Pollock produces art. I’m sympathetic to the strategy of switching the question to interrogate tacit norms, to be sure.

    The person who is committed to asking ‘what is art?’ is still on the hook, however, if they are begging the question in the manner I describe in the post. They are ostensibly *not* looking to reorient their question, and thus there is something disingenuous in their attempt at an objective survey of available theories. The objective pursuit of the question ‘what is art?’ is compromised if you’re committed to a certain normative framework all along.

  3. It depends on your moral epistemology. Here are two common ones:

    (1) A popular method in analytic philosophy is “reflective equilibrium” (Rawls’s name). According to this method, you start with some intuitions about cases in a domain (say ethics). Some of these intuitions are strong and about what seem to be clear-cut cases (e.g., infanticide is wrong, to borrow your example). Other intuitions are weaker and about borderline cases (e.g., abortion is wrong, to imagine one that appears less secure). The goal of reflective equilibrium is to discover a principle that captures most (or the strongest, or both) of your intuitions (e.g., the doctrine of double effect, or whatever). Some of your intuitions may not be captured, unless you happen to have a purely consistent set of intuitions, which would be amazing. With those stray intuitions, you should change your mind, presuming that you have found a true principle that exposes them as wrong.

    (2) A method more common in the history of (modern) moral philosophy is epitomized by, say, the utililty principle of utilitarianism or the categorical imperative of Kantian ethics, where there is principle which has been shown to be correct for other reasons (i.e., reasons that do not draw from intuitions about cases, but instead from other theoretical matters — psychology, metaphysics, or whatever). Using this method, your goal is not to preserve intuitions — whether strong or many — but to regiment all of them according to your principle. It might turn out that all of your intuitions are inconsistent with the principle, and if so you are obliged to abandon them all, relying for your moral judgments upon your principle rather than upon your intuitions. (As an aside, someone who had to do this would experience a total conversion; he would likely also go mad.)

    Now, arguing in the way you described — e.g., rejecting a principle because it allows infanticide — would clearly be begging the question according to method (2). When it comes to (1), it’s less clear. A practitioner of (1) will claim that arguing in this way — i.e., using a strong intuition about a clear-cut case — is not begging the question because it is allowed by the method of (1); it is simply the way reflective equilibrium works. The idea is that philosophical thought about morality should help us refine our moral judgments, which it presumes to be basically right but in need of tuning. Perhaps there could be an argument from elsewhere — biology, psychology, sociology, etc. — to support that claim.

    But a skeptic about reflective equilibrium, and this sort of argument to support it, can reject it with the help of Marx or Nietzsche, or ultimately the Greek Sophists. For this was also Thrasymachus’s objection to Socrates’ method in *Republic* 1. If justice is the advantage of the stronger, then intuitions about justice will be false consciousness (in Marx’s terms), or symptoms of the ascetic ideal (in Nietzsche’s), and any method that seeks to preserve the most or the strongest of these intuitions (or both) will merely serve the interests of the stronger. This is, I think, a powerful critique of much analytic moral philosophy. Rawls, for example, practices this method and emerges with a moral order that looks very much like the American order of his time.

    In defense of (1), I should add, someone could reply that we must begin somewhere, and strong intuitions about clear-cut cases are a better place to begin than with an abstract principle. After all, as I’ve heard, Aquinas deduced from the abstract principles of Catholic sexual morality — according to which sex is a natural act whose telos is procreation — that it is more sinful to masturbate than it is to rape your daughter. The reason? Masturbation is entirely without procreative possibility, whereas incest and rape retain this possibility. If this example proves to be false, the history of moral thinking affords many more just as bad (e.g., Aristotle on natural slaves, not to mention Sepulveda’s use of it millenia later).

    As an additional defense of (1), abstract principles, even when they are deduced from apparently independent fields (psychology or metaphysics or whatever), often bear the imprint of their milieu’s morality. Ironically, this is also something the Sophists and their modern heirs (Nietzsche and Marx again) could diagnose. In this vein, some have argued that Aristotle’s abstract metaphysics is just patriarchy writ large, because form masters matter, just as sperm masters menses, and so on.

    This last point is especially troubling when we return to the point where I began: i.e., the answer to your question depends on your epistemology. For if our abstract philosophical ruminations, including our epistemology, are ultimately projections of our milieu’s morality, then we cannot adjudicate between the rival answers to your question ((1) and (2)) by engaging in an epistemological debate (which might initially seem to avoid the charge of question-begging). For if this additional defense of (1) be presumed, that debate would itself beg the question.

  4. plasticbodies says:

    Patrick, this is very helpful and I appreciate that you took the time to post such a lengthy response. It helps me pinpoint my problem with the texts I have in mind (some of my students picked up on this in my Philosophical Ethics class last spring). What is happening in these texts is that the author is presenting his survey of the available theories as though he (the author) is committed to the second epistemology you describe. However, when they are done exposing the theory, their objections proceed on the basis of the first epistemology. This seems in part necessary, for how else would they raise substantive objections (rather than purely logical ones)? Indeed, we must begin our criticism somewhere.

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