While my roommate was away for the weekend her betta fish died. Because I knew that she was very attached to the fish I went to the pet store and purchased a replacement that looks very similar to the dead fish and flushed the dead one away. My roommate is none the wiser. My boyfriend says that I should come clean and that my behavior has been patronizing and deceitful. I believe that I have spared her unnecessary pain. What do you think?
—Clever in Cleveland
I suppose you have been a little patronizing. And you have certainly been less than fully honest, although “deceitful,” with its connotations of self-interested guile, may be too strong a term. But you have also been generous and thoughtful. You acted out of concern for your friend and made a real effort to help her. Even now, you sound as concerned for her pain as for any consequences to you if you do fess up.
Using hindsight and exquisite ethical calibration, here is my ideal dead- betta scenario: You replace the first iteration of the betta and save the minuscule corpse of Betta 1.1 (in the freezer, wrapped and ziplocked) in case your roommate wants to pay her respects. You tell your roommate the whole story as soon as she gets home, perhaps saying that you will take Betta 1.2 yourself if it is just too hard for her to make the transition. (An absolute moral heroine would even offer to hold a teeny fish-funeral. I have officiated at several in my time, though never for an adult owner. We buried our fishes among the tomatoes in one of those huge wine-cask planters, sang the itty-bitty-pool song, and spoke of Squanto, which latter I now realize may have been historically inaccurate.)
Of course, although it was fun to think through, none of the above matters in your case, since you have already flushed 1.1 and have gone for some time without letting your roommate know about 1.2. So, now that the deed is done, should you come clean? I can only think of two arguments for doing so. The first is largely practical: if your roommate learns about the substitution at some inopportune time, and not from you, this could be more upsetting and embarrassing, and make her much angrier, than if you tell her now. You are probably safe if you bought Betta 1.2 at some cavernous box of a pet store, not the place on the corner where they know you both; if you haven’t told anybody but your boyfriend; and if he (unlike a fish) can be counted on to keep his mouth shut. If you do not feel confident in all these areas, confessing may be better for both you and your roommate in the long run.
The second argument for coming clean is more purely ethical. Even if she would never find out otherwise, are you obligated to tell her as a matter of respect? Is tricking her about something you admit is important to her an affront to her inherent dignity and autonomy? Is substituting an imposter for the fishy friend to whom she has confided her hopes and dreams a moral transgression because, as Kant would say, you are not treating her as a rational being, as an end in herself?
I think that under these circumstances even Kant, that sweet old stickler, would just shrug his shoulders and say: “Hey, it’s a betta fish.” If, despite her close relationship with Betta 1.1, your roommate can’t tell the two fish apart, I think it’s safe to say that Betta 1.2 is its predecessor’s moral equivalent as a pet and companion. True, 1.1 does not have the same little spark of consciousness as 1.2. But so what? Betta 1.1 is no more, through no fault of anyone’s, and all its trials, if any, are over. Betta 1.2 apparently looks the same as Betta 1.1 and after about five seconds acquired all the same memories. I am also reasonably sure that it will behave and respond in identical ways. Although this may be due in part to the way they are confined and constrained by their human oppressors, betta fish just don’t have all that much expressive range. I have lived with many creatures, including betta fish, and have found that in terms of behavioral and emotional complexity, bettas rank well behind goldfish and flies, and only slightly ahead of leaves blowing in the wind. It is not as if you are trying to pawn off a new golden retriever.
As long as you don’t think your roommate is likely to learn the truth, I would relax. You strike me as a kind and moral person. So does your boyfriend, actually, in a sanctimonious sort of way.
P.S. ‘Clever in Cleveland’ writes to Cleaver. Nice! That is either a wonderful coincidence or a witty invention.
I understand that you have degrees in both philosophy and law from some fancy places. So can you please explain to everyone in the world the real meaning of the phrase “beg the question”?
—Frustrated on the Fourth Floor
I fear that it may be a while, perhaps weeks or even months, until everyone in the world reads Cleaver. In the meantime, though, I am more than happy to join the many on-line voices trying to preserve the traditional meaning of “beg the question.”
More and more people—including just about everybody on TV news and talk shows, with significant seepage into NPR—use “beg the question” to mean “raise the question,” in the sense of “really make a guy want to ask the question.” Example: A three-year-old drove a tractor into town, which begs the question: who was supposed to be watching him?
But for philosophers and punctilious English speakers, begging the question, or question-begging, is a logical fallacy. (Since you asked, it is the fallacy of petitio principii, which you can learn a lot about by Googling if you can ever manage to escape an infinite regress of autocorrects.) When you beg the question you engage in circular reasoning: instead of making an argument or offering evidence of some kind to get from a premise to a conclusion, you simply assume that the premise is true and use it (usually worded or emphasized slightly differently) to support itself. Since the reasoning is circular, you can also think about the fallacy in the other direction: as involving a premise that states or assumes that the conclusion is true.
In its crudest form, question-begging is simply a paraphrase or tautology masquerading as an argument. Consider: “Penicillin fights bacteria because it is an antibiotic.” This sentence works only if the point is to define “antibiotic.” If the point is to prove something about penicillin, or antibiotics for that matter, the speaker is begging the question.
Or: “The death penalty is always wrong because it is never moral for the state to execute a human being.” The premise and conclusion may both be correct, but they both say the same thing, except perhaps to people who forget or disagree that death-row inmates are human beings.
Sometimes the premises are better hidden, or the chain of reasoning is more complicated. Suppose a student writes: “How can you justify abortion? You would not murder an injured man who has fallen into a nine-month coma and can’t take care of himself.” Here a professor might comment: “Your description of the injured comatose man, and your equating him with a fetus, may be persuasive to some because the image carries such emotional weight. Your analogy may even make rational people examine their basic moral intuitions and ask themselves whether the two cases are relevantly similar. But you have not logically proved anything. You beg the question by assuming that a man and a fetus have the same right to life. And you engage in a more insidious form of question-begging by the way you use the word ‘murder,’ as if it must apply equally in both cases.”
So that’s what the phrase means, logically and historically. But you asked me for the “right” meaning. Here I am less sure. Should we try to hold onto a meaning that increasingly few people seem to use or understand? On the one hand, the “correct” meaning is valuable as an aid to clear thought; using it is not just a matter of pedantic adherence to some hifalutin outmoded canon, like knowing to say “oblivious of” or “a myriad books.” Abandoning the historic meaning of “beg the question” might also make it harder for students to interpret the reasoning of earlier or more sophisticated writers. On the other hand, there is always plain old “circular reasoning” to fall back on when addressing a general audience. And we can count on philosophers and any number of passionate Internet voices to carry the torch in their various fiefdoms.
I’m torn. It is really annoying to hear people use “beg the question” incorrectly when they have a perfectly good alternative in “raise the question.” But it is even more annoying when people pounce on other people’s usage. Perhaps “beg the question” has reached the point of no return, and if so I guess I can live with that. Language is a living, breathing thing, yadda yadda yadda. We’ll be fine—as long as we can turn the clock back on “literally” as used to mean “figuratively, but a lot.” Just the other day I was trying to tell my editor that schnauzers, calicos, and Chihuahuas were falling on my head, but I couldn’t make her understand.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.