- Complex Question
- Many Questions
- Plurium Interrogationum
Translation: “many questions”, Latin
“How am I to get in?” asked Alice again, in a louder tone.
“Are you to get in at all?” said the Footman, “That’s the first question, you know.”
Source: Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Ch. 6.
A question with a false, disputed, or question-begging presupposition.
Why should merely cracking down on terrorism help to stop it, when that method hasn’t worked in any other country? Why are we so hated in the Muslim world? What did our government do there to bring this horror home to all those innocent Americans? And why don’t we learn anything, from our free press, about the gross ineptitude of our state agencies? about what’s really happening in Afghanistan? about the pertinence of Central Asia’s huge reserves of oil and natural gas? about the links between the Bush and the bin Laden families?
Source: Mark Crispin Miller, “Brain Drain”, Context, No. 9
A “loaded question”, like a loaded gun, is a dangerous thing. A loaded question is a question with a false or questionable presupposition, and it is “loaded” with that presumption. The question “Have you stopped beating your wife?” presupposes that you have beaten your wife prior to its asking, as well as that you have a wife. If you are unmarried, or have never beaten your wife, then the question is loaded.
Since this example is a yes/no question, there are only the following two direct answers:
- “Yes, I have stopped beating my wife”, which entails “I was beating my wife.”
- “No, I haven’t stopped beating my wife”, which entails “I am still beating my wife.”
Thus, either direct answer entails that you have beaten your wife, which is, therefore, a presupposition of the question. So, a loaded question is one which you cannot answer directly without implying a falsehood or a statement that you deny. For this reason, the proper response to such a question is not to answer it directly, but to either refuse to answer or to reject the question.
Some systems of parliamentary debate provide for “dividing the question”, that is, splitting a complex question up into two or more simple questions. Such a move can be used to split the example as follows:
- “Have you ever beaten your wife?”
- “If so, are you still doing so?”
In this way, 1 can be answered directly by “no”, and then the conditional question 2 does not arise.
Since a question is not an argument, simply asking a loaded question is not a fallacious argument. Rather, loaded questions are typically used to trick someone into implying something they did not intend. For instance, salespeople learn to ask such loaded questions as: “Will that be cash or charge?” This question gives only two alternatives, thus presuming that the potential buyer has already decided to make a purchase, which is similar to the Black-or-White Fallacy. If the potential buyer answers the question directly, he may suddenly find himself an actual buyer.
- Julian Baggini, “The Fallacy of the Complex Question”, Bad Moves
- David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 8-9.
- Douglas Walton, “The Fallacy of Many Questions: On the Notions of Complexity, Loadedness and Unfair Entrapment in Interrogative Theory” (PDF). This paper is not as weighty as its title, and it contains some nice examples and interesting history of the fallacy.