Loaded question

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

A loaded question or complex question fallacy is a question that contains a controversial or unjustified assumption (e.g., a presumption of guilt).[1]

Aside from being an informal fallacy depending on usage, such questions may be used as a rhetorical tool: the question attempts to limit direct replies to be those that serve the questioner's agenda.[2] The traditional example is the question "Have you stopped beating your wife?" Whether the respondent answers yes or no, they will admit to having a wife and having beaten her at some time in the past. Thus, these facts are presupposed by the question, and in this case an entrapment, because it narrows the respondent to a single answer, and the fallacy of many questions has been committed.[2] The fallacy relies upon context for its effect: the fact that a question presupposes something does not in itself make the question fallacious. Only when some of these presuppositions are not necessarily agreed to by the person who is asked the question does the argument containing them become fallacious.[2] Hence the same question may be loaded in one context, but not in the other. For example, the previous question would not be loaded if it was asked during a trial in which the defendant has already admitted to beating his wife.[2]

This fallacy should be distinguished from that of begging the question (not to be confused with raising the question),[3] which offers a premise whose plausibility depends on the truth of the proposition asked about, and which is often an implicit restatement of the proposition.[4]


A common way out of this argument is not to answer the question (e.g. with a simple 'yes' or 'no'), but to challenge the assumption behind the question. To use an earlier example, a good response to the question "Have you stopped beating your wife?" would be "I have never beaten my wife".[5] This removes the ambiguity of the expected response, therefore nullifying the tactic. However, the askers of said questions have learned to get around this tactic by accusing the one who answers of dodging the question.

Historical examples[edit]

Madeleine Albright (U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.) fell into a trap of answering a loaded question (and later regretted not challenging it instead) on 60 Minutes on 12 May 1996. Lesley Stahl asked, regarding the effects of UN sanctions against Iraq, "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" Madeleine Albright: "I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it."[6] She later wrote of this response:

I must have been crazy; I should have answered the question by reframing it and pointing out the inherent flaws in the premise behind it.... As soon as I had spoken, I wished for the power to freeze time and take back those words. My reply had been a terrible mistake, hasty, clumsy, and wrong.... I had fallen into a trap and said something that I simply did not mean. That is no one's fault but my own.[7]

President Bill Clinton, the moderator in a town meeting discussing the topic "Race In America", in response to a participant argument that the issue was not affirmative action but "racial preferences" asked the participant a loaded question: "Do you favor the United States Army abolishing the affirmative-action program that produced Colin Powell? Yes or no?" [8]

For another example, the New Zealand corporal punishment referendum, 2009 asked: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?" Murray Edridge, of Barnardos New Zealand, criticized the question as "loaded and ambiguous" and claimed "the question presupposes that smacking is a part of good parental correction".[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gregory Bassham (2004). Critical Thinking. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 9780072879599. 
  2. ^ a b c d Douglas N. Walton, Informal logic: a handbook for critical argumentation, Cambridge University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-521-37925-3, pp. 36–37
  3. ^ "Fallacy: Begging the Question". The Nizkor Project. Retrieved January 22, 2008. 
  4. ^ Carroll, Robert Todd. The Skeptic's Dictionary. John Wiley & Sons. p. 51. ISBN 0-471-27242-6. 
  5. ^ Layman, C. Stephen (2003). The Power of Logic. p. 158. 
  6. ^ Douglas E. Hill (2002). "Albright's Blunder". Irvine Review. Archived from the original on 2003-06-03. Retrieved 2008-01-04. 
  7. ^ Albright, Madeleine (2003). Madam Secretary: A Memoir. p. 275. ISBN 0-7868-6843-0. 
  8. ^ Clifford Alexander (December 23, 1997). "Colin Powell Promotion: the Real Story". The New York Times. 
  9. ^ "Anti-smacking debate goes to referendum". 3 News. June 15, 2009. Retrieved 2010-02-03. 

External links[edit]