Monday, September 26, 2011

Essay Exam Answering Tip #92611 – Begging the Question

When grading exam answers, professors reward logical, persuasive presentations. Resolving issues using logical fallacies earns no points.

One pitfall to avoid is the use of a circular argument.  This is also known as “begging the question." This fallacy occurs when one assumes the truth of what one is attempting to prove in the very effort to prove it. In other words, an argument is fallacious when the conclusion lies buried in the premise(s) used to reach that conclusion. Question-begging arguments often mask themselves in clever rhetoric. They can be easy to miss because they often sound good.

Example: “The Supreme Court’s power of judicial review is inherently undemocratic. When unelected judges reign supreme in the exposition of the Constitution, it cannot be said that we have a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’”

Explanation: The writer is assuming the truth of what she is trying to prove in the very effort to prove it. If you look at these two sentences closely, you will see that they are essentially paraphrases of one another. Because the second sentence is longer and more complex, it tends to trick us into thinking that it is a logically distinct idea — but it is not.

This example if from Neal Ramee’s Logic and Legal Reasoning: A Guide for Law Students, in which Mr. Ramee correctly explains, “Learning how to spot and avoid such logical fallacies can enormously strengthen your legal writing and advocacy by helping you adhere to the ‘pristine logic’ of correct syllogistic reasoning.”  (Recommendation: read Mr. Ramee’s 10-page “guide.”)

Begging the question — from the Latin petitio principii — arises all too often in exam answers. If you write, “The contract is enforceable because it fulfills the validity requirements” or, “Defendant is liable for negligence because of his negligent conduct,” you’re begging the question. Each of these statements lacks the point-scoring analysis your professor is looking for.  The Contracts essay answer needs to state the elements that establish validity (or enforceability) and to show how the facts in the narrative fulfill the requirements. The Torts answer ought to specify precisely what the negligent conduct is and the rationale behind the conclusion that this conduct is negligent.

Remember that stating the “right” answer (for example, that a party was negligent) is not what scores the points in an essay answer — rather, points are scored by your logical, organized interweaving of the facts with the elements of the law in a compelling analytical presentation.

{This “tip” is one of a continuing series.  Law school academic professionals are authorized to use this material in their work however they choose — and law students who read these tips are encouraged to integrate them into their practice sessions. To see where this tip fits in the grand schema: Click here.} (djt)

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This reminds me of an answer on a Criminal Law exam that give a definition of first-degree murder and then concluded, without more, that "X is guilty of first-degree murder by definition."

Posted by: Otto Stockmeyer | Sep 27, 2011 7:48:52 AM

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