Complex Question


The argument takes the form of a question - often a rhetorical question. Answering the question, however, is impossible, unless something is taken for granted that still ought to be regarded as doubtful or open to further discussion.



"Have you stopped beating your wife?" [This is the classic example.]


"My question to you is, 'Was it exhausting keeping track of all the lies you were telling people?'" - Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) directed to Michael Cohen at the House Oversight Committee hearing, February 28, 2019.



Complex questions seem more like debators' tricks than like arguments. When used as a debater's trick, the idea is that, since a complex question cannot be answered (as asked), the opponent is left speechless and stammering. A complex question qualifies as an argument - and therefore as a fallacious argument - only because some conclusion is drawn from the opponent's inability to answer the question. In most cases this conclusion is left unstated (except, perhaps, in the minds of listeners).

Discussion of issues sometimes takes place in the context of a Socratic dialogue. One of the participants in the dialogue asks questions aimed at discovering what positions the other is willing to endorse. Usually the purpose of the discussion (for the questioner) is to show the other person that some view he is attempting to defend is inconsistent with some other view that the discussants have agreed upon. For example, in Plato's Gorgias, an Athenian politician named Callicles tries to defend the view that certain powerful individuals (by which he means himself) have a perfect moral right to do as they please without being constrained by the false "conventional" morality of the masses. Socrates asks, "Are not the mass of men naturally stronger than the individual man?" Callicles admits that they are. But then, on the principle that the true morality is the morality of the powerful, it follows that the "conventional" morality of the masses is the true morality. Isn't that what follows? "Don't grudge me an answer to this question, Callicles," says Socrates. Unable to answer the question without admitting that he was wrong, Callicles remains silent, and we all know that his view has been refuted. This is an example of legitimate questioning used to expose the falsity of a position.

The fallacy of Complex Question mimics such Socratic questioning, but the question that renders the opponent speechless is unanswerable, not because the opponent has been trapped in a contradiction, but because the question itself is confused or misdirected. The ploy succeeds when the audience fails to notice the difference.


Source: Aristotle, Sophistical Refutations 5 (168a: 1 - 15). However, translators prefer to translate the name of the fallacy as "many questions." Recognition of the fallacy pre-dates Aristotle. The first philosophers to ask, "Have you stopped beating your father?" were the Megarian logicians, who were contemporary with Socrates and Plato. (I note that elder-abuse was a greater concern to the Megarians than wife-abuse.)


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