Understanding Fallacies

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Loaded Question

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]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.


Madeleine Albright (U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.) claims to have answered (when she should have challenged) a loaded question 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?" [2]

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".[8]


Wikipedia: Loaded Question

Reference Guide
Fallacy Summary

The content of this Fallacy originated from Stephen Downes Guide to Logical Fallacies.


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