Loaded question

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A loaded question is a question which contains a controversial assumption such as a presumption of guilt.[1]

Such questions are used rhetorically, so that the question limits 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, he 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]

A loaded question may be asked to trick the respondent into admitting something that the questioner believes to be true, and which may in fact be true. So the previous question is "loaded," whether or not the respondent has actually beaten his wife.

This fallacy can be confused with begging the question,[3] which offers a premise no more plausible than, and often just a restatement of, the conclusion.[4]

The term "loaded question" is sometimes used to refer to loaded language that is phrased as a question. This type of question does not necessarily contain a fallacious presupposition, but rather this usage refers to the question having an unspoken and often emotive implication. For example, "Are you a murderer?" would be such a loaded question, as "murder" has a very negative connotation. Such a question may be asked merely to harass or upset the respondent with no intention of listening to their reply, or asked with the full expectation that the respondent will predictably deny it.



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 "Do you still beat your wife?" would be either "I have never beaten my wife" or "I have never had a 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. A rhetorical question such as "Then please explain, how could I possibly have beaten a wife that I've never had?" can be an effective antidote to this further tactic, placing the burden on the deceptive questioner either to expose their tactic or stop the line of inquiry. In many cases a short answer is important. I neither did nor do I now makes a good example on how to answer the question without letting the asker interrupt and misshape the response.

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