Did you ever have a conversation with your parents like this:
Parent: “It’s time to go to bed.”
Parent: “Because this is your bedtime.”
At the time, you might have felt unsatisfied with their response, but you didn’t know how to argue against them. Knowledge is power, and in this case you were powerless to resist your parents because you didn’t know about logical fallacies—errors in reasoning such as straw man, ad hominem, and appeal to popularity.
Here’s another example to illustrate the same kind of fallacy:
Circle: “Skydiving is dangerous.”
Circle: “Because it’s unsafe.”
The fallacy Circle commits (the same one committed by the parent in the earlier example) is called circular reasoning or begging the question. Circular reasoning happens when the arguer assumes that the conclusion is true rather than proving that it’s true. To better understand what this means, let’s first go over what an argument is.
An argument is a series of statements that try to prove a point. The statement that the arguer tries to prove is called the conclusion. The statements that try to prove the conclusion are called premises.
In order to prove a conclusion, the premises can’t include the conclusion itself. That would be like trying to prove that what The New York Times says is true by quoting the Times itself. My friend Circle can’t prove that skydiving is dangerous simply by saying it’s dangerous. In other words, he can’t prove it’s dangerous by saying, “Skydiving is dangerous because it’s dangerous.” You can’t prove something true simply by saying it or repeating it.
Rather, to prove something true, you need to bring forward reasons that are independent of the conclusion—reasons that don’t already assume or presuppose that your conclusion is true. For example, to prove that skydiving is dangerous, Circle would need to cite some data about, say, how frequently people get injured or die while skydiving.
When you present an argument you’re supposed to be giving reasons to think that the conclusion is true. But when someone commits the fallacy of circular reasoning, they’re failing to provide any reasons to think the conclusion is true. Here’s another example that illustrates this point:
Therefore, God exists.
You can see in this example that there is no reason to believe the conclusion of the argument. Instead, the arguer has simply restated the conclusion–they’re presupposing that their conclusion is true. More precisely, they’re using their conclusion as a premise or presupposition. That’s a way of defining circular reasoning: Circular reasoning occurs when someone uses their conclusion as one of their premises.
Typically circular reasoning isn’t as obvious as this example. Usually, when people commit the fallacy they don’t restate the conclusion verbatim; they instead change the way it’s worded.
Think again about my conversation with Circle. Here’s Circle’s so-called argument:
Premise: Skydiving is unsafe.
Conclusion: Skydiving is dangerous.
Circle says skydiving is unsafe because it’s dangerous. The word ‘unsafe’ is different from the word ‘dangerous.’ The problem is, even though ‘unsafe’ and ‘dangerous’ are different words, they still mean the same thing. In reality, then, Circle is saying that skydiving is dangerous because it’s dangerous; he’s just using a different word for ‘dangerous.’
Changing the word creates the illusion that Circle is presenting real reasons to believe his conclusion that skydiving is dangerous, but in fact, he’s just restating the conclusion.
Here’s another example of this:
The word of God is true.
Therefore, the Bible is true.
Once again, the arguer isn’t providing any reasons to think the conclusion is true, but is simply replacing one expression for another: ‘word of God’ for ‘Bible.’
Here are a few more examples of circular reasoning:
“The death penalty is justified because the government has good reason to put someone to death for serious offenses.”
Explanation: In this case, the arguer isn’t providing any reasons that prove the death penalty is justified. They are just restating their conclusion using different words. They’re using ‘has good reason to’ in place of ‘justified.’ The arguer doesn’t give any reasons to think that the conclusion is true.
“The death penalty is never justified because taking a human life is always wrong.”
Explanation: In this case, the arguer isn’t providing any reasons that prove the death penalty is never justified. The arguer is just substituting ‘always wrong’ for ‘is never justified.’ The arguer doesn’t give any reasons to think that the conclusion is true, but is simply restating the conclusion using different words.
“Smoking is bad because it has a negative impact on your health.”
Explanation: In this case, the arguer isn’t providing any reasons that prove that smoking is bad. The arguer is just replacing ‘bad’ with ‘negative impact.’ The arguer doesn’t give any reasons to think that the conclusion is true, but is simply restating the conclusion using different words.
Let’s go back to the parent example:
Parent: “It’s time to go to bed.”
Parent: “Because this is your bedtime.”
Explanation: The parent is saying, “It’s time to go to bed because it’s time to go to bed.” There is no reason provided to support the conclusion. They’re just restating the conclusion using different words.
Here’s another example of a parent using circular reasoning:
Parent: “Brushing your teeth is healthy.”
Parent: “Because it’s good for your teeth.”
Explanation: The above is an example of how some parents explain to their kids why they should brush their teeth. In this example, ‘healthy’ and ‘good’ mean the same thing. The parent is not giving any reasons to believe that brushing your teeth is healthy for your teeth. They’re just restating the conclusion using different words.
How to Disarm Circular Reasoning
All fallacies are errors in reasoning. Circular reasoning in particular happens when the person making the argument assumes their conclusion is true instead of proving it’s true. It’s like a prosecutor making a case by saying, “Mr. Smith committed this felony because he did it.” The prosecutor isn’t giving any reasons to support his conclusion.
There are two steps for disarming circular reasoning:
- Get clear on the terms.
- Point out that the arguer is simply restating their conclusion, and not providing any reasons to accept it.
Suppose I commit a circular reasoning fallacy: “Circular reasoning is bad,” I say, “because it’s stupid.”
First, ask me to clarify my terms. For example, you can say, “What do you mean by ‘bad’ and ‘stupid’?” Asking for clarification will give you more clarity on what I am trying to say.
Second, you can point out that I’m just restating my conclusion. For example, you could say, “It sounds like ‘bad’ and ‘stupid’ mean exactly the same thing here. In that case, you are not giving me any reasons to believe your conclusion. You’re just restating your conclusion by using different words.”
Circular reasoning is a common fallacy because people simply want you to believe their conclusion without giving any support. The two-step process helps you ask for support for the conclusion, and it also helps you identify and avoid the fallacy.
The Free Thinker’s Approach to Circular Reasoning
A free thinker is committed to knowing and understanding what’s true. A free thinker is committed to developing critical thinking skills and learning about different types of arguments. They’re committed to pointing out formal fallacies and informal fallacies when people commit them, and they’re committed to recognizing circular reasoning in other people’s arguments and in their own.
Summary and Conclusion
- Circular reasoning happens when someone uses the conclusion as one of their premises.
- When an arguer commits circular reasoning, they assume that the conclusion they’re stating is true, rather than proving it’s true.
- To prove a conclusion, you need to bring forward reasons that are independent of the conclusion.
- Some other names for circular reasoning are Circular logic, Begging the question, Petitio principii, Circulus in probando, Circularity of the argument, Vicious circle or Circulus in demonstrando.