The complex question fallacy is a form of equivocation. Basically, the complex question fallacy occurs when someone presents a statement or claim and then asks a question that presupposes either all or part of what was just stated or claimed.

complex question fallacy

It is not always possible to tell that the person has committed the complex question fallacy. Some people may not understand that they are committing it, or else when they do realize it, they may continue to use it. The latter is the case of many politicians, for example.

Examples of the complex question fallacy

To understand the complex question fallacy let’s take a look at 3 different examples.

Example #1:

Q: Is it morally permissible to save a drowning child by killing another child? (no)

A: Why is it acceptable to use violence to protect others, but not acceptable to use violence to prevent innocent people from dying? (no)

This question commits the complex question fallacy because it assumes that it is acceptable or permissible to take someone’s life as long as they are dying. This assumption is made implicit in the second question, which depends on accepting the first statement.

Example #2:

Q: Do we have to choose between letting innocent people die and killing innocent people? (no)

A: If we don’t kill innocent people, are we just going to let the innocent people die? (no)

This question commits the complex question fallacy because it presupposes that a choice must be made between either letting innocent people die or killing them. But this is not a valid option; it is a false dilemma. It ignores all other options.

Example #3:

Q: Is it okay to kill an innocent person if it saves the lives of 200 other innocent people? (no)

A: How do you determine if something is morally permissible? (because we can’t make value judgments about what doesn’t harm others and what doesn’t help others. If it doesn’t do either of those things, then it isn’t morally permissible.)

This question commits the complex question fallacy because it presupposes that making value judgments about what is morally permissible is dependent on some other criterion. But this is not the case. We can use reason and logic to decide whether something is or isn’t morally permissible. If the person had asked how we determine if something isn’t morally impermissible, then that wouldn’t have been a complex question fallacy because that would not have assumed anything else.

How to avoid using this fallacy

This fallacy is usually used with the intention of confusing or misleading the person being asked the question. So, you should avoid using it unless you have an actual interest in having a fruitful and honest discussion with people.

The rules for avoiding this fallacy are similar to other fallacies. One thing you can do is to try to determine if the question makes any presuppositions, and if it does, see if those presuppositions are valid. It may be a good idea to see if the person is using an overarching argument or if they are cherry-picking ideas.

It is also good to see if other people try to challenge the first statement, or if they accept it. If other people take issue with the first statement, then you should re-evaluate whether or not the question you are about to ask commits this fallacy.

Lastly, you shouldn’t overthink any of this. These rules can be used as a general guide in determining what questions commit complex question fallacies, but do not let them make you feel paranoid or anxious about asking questions.

How to respond to someone using the complex question fallacy

The correct response to a complex question fallacy is, “Oh. That’s interesting. You make a claim, and then you ask me a question that presupposes what you just said.”

Something more appropriate might be something like this: “I understand what you’re saying, but I want to point out something. What you say presupposes that X is true. But it’s possible that Y is true. So, I want to make sure whether or not this presupposition is valid.”

So, what you’re trying to do is to point out that you may be missing something important. You’re not trying to argue with the person. You are just pointing out that in order to discuss things rationally and logically, it’s important for people to include all of the information that they know into their argumentative structure.

Example and response:

Q: Is it morally permissible to save a drowning child by killing another child? (no)

A: Why is it acceptable to use violence to protect others, but not acceptable to use violence to prevent innocent people from dying?

Explanation of this: If you look at the original question, “Is it morally permissible to save a drowning child by killing another child?”, you see that the person is presupposing that both/all of these following statements are true.

That it is morally impermissible to kill innocent people – since killing another innocent person is immoral and therefore impermissible. This is clearly false because one cannot make a moral judgment about what it means to be an innocent person. This would be an assumption, and we know that assumptions can be false.

That it is impermissible to save an innocent by killing another innocent. Since it is impermissible to kill innocent people, it must also be impermissible to save them. This is invalid because it is a non sequitur – meaning that it doesn’t follow from the original statement. It doesn’t follow logically from the first statement that human beings are not permitted to take life in order to save a life. The person just assumes this and then goes on.

So, we have an argument that is not valid because it assumes a premise without making it explicit. Therefore, the conclusion is also not valid. We can take away the invalid conclusion that it would be impermissible to save a drowning child by killing another innocent person, and replace it with a valid one: It would be impermissible to save a drowning child by killing another innocent person if we were prohibited from saving lives in general.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has given you some good guidelines for asking questions. When you ask a complex question fallacy question, you are not just asking a simple question (like why don’t we save the children). This fallacy is more complex, and any answer that you get back may be based on an assumption that the person isn’t aware of. So, it’s good to see how they argue their case before you make an argument for what your position is.

Be wary, and if you suspect that someone is committing a complex question fallacy, consider whether or not they are really asking a better question.

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