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

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. 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. 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. 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.

This fallacy should be distinguished from that of begging the question, 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.

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.

Leave a Reply