The circular reasoning fallacy or circular argument is a type of petitio principii (assuming the point) argument. It is a formal logical fallacy based on the structure of the argument. As the name suggests, the structure of the argument is logically circular. It’s related to the begging the question fallacy.
Each premise in the argument relies on the other and the conclusion in turn supports one or more of the premises. As such, there is no independent way to verify the argument other than the premises and conclusion given in the argument.
This type of reasoning forms a circle where questioning one premise or conclusion simply leads to stating another premise or conclusion. Below is the structure of one possible circular argument:
Premise 1: Statement Ais true because of B.
Premise 2: Statement B is true because of C.
Premise 3: Statement Cis true because of A.
In the above argument structure, notice that each premise relies on each other for its validity. In premise 3, A is used to justify C. However, the problem is that A is justified by another statement in the argument, statement B. This is a problem because A is both a reason supporting the argument (as in premise 3) and is supported by the argument (as in premise 1), forming a logical circle. This is incorrect because an argument must have independent reasons for why it is a good argument.
Quick Circular Reasoning Examples
- God exists because the bible says so and the bible is always right because it is the divine work of God.
- Books are so important to develop your reading and the only way to truly learn to read is with books.
- Entrepreneurs and small businesses are the only way the economy can truly work well. The stimulation and employment they provide is invaluable. And, it is this stimulation and employment which allows entrepreneurs and small businesses to truly thrive.
- You should eat between 2 to 5 cups of fruit and vegetables every day to be healthy. In today’s current climate of office jobs and sedentary lifestyle, being healthy is very important. That is why it is important for people in offices to eat 2 to 5 cups of fruit and vegetables every day.
- People forget how dangerous driving can be. We are all racing around in cars everyday. But, because we are all doing it, we forget how dangerous it is.
- The two great pacific garbage patches span from North America to Japan. Bottled water is a major contributor to this. They say that it accounts for a large amount of the pollution in these patches.
- Horses were domesticated over 6000 years ago. Since then they have been used for sport, leisure and most importantly labour. From this we can deduce that horses have been around humans for a very long time.
- Andrea: “Stop that thief!” George: “How do you know he is a thief?” Andrea: ”Well, he is a criminal and all criminals steal.”
- As of August 2022 an area that size of Puerto Rico was cut down in the Amazon rainforest. This rate of deforestation is much higher than previous years. It is so high in fact that areas the size of whole countries are being lost in the Amazon.
- In order to be held responsible, a person must have free will. However, the consequence of this is, when people can choose their own actions then they are automatically accountable for their actions.
5 Examples Explained
1. The Great garbage patch
Argument: The two great pacific garbage patches span from North America to Japan. Bottled water is a major contributor to this. This is because it accounts for a large amount of the pollution in these patches.
- The biggest contributor to the great pacific garbage patch is bottled water.
- We know this because bottled water accounts for a large amount of the pollution in the garbage patch.
In the above example of the great pacific garbage patches, the argument is a fallacy of circular reasoning.
This is due to the fact that the second and third sentence are both stating that water bottles are a large factor in the cause of the garbage patches.
In terms of the evidence we are presented then, we have no information for why or how it is that water bottles do in fact make up a large portion of the garbage patch.
An independent way to verify the argument is required. We need an explanation for how we know rather than just that we know for the second premise.
2. Horses and humans
Argument: Horses were domesticated over 6000 years ago. Since then, they have been used for sport, leisure and most importantly labour. From this we can deduce that horses have been around humans for a very long time.
In the above example regarding the domestication of horses the argument is circular. It is circular because the conclusion and the first premise, sentence 1 and 3 respectively, are making the same claim.
Premise 2 – sentence 2, does not give us any reason to either believe the conclusion or the first premise. Therefore, the first premise and the conclusion create a logical circle. Instead, we need a piece of independent evidence to back up our deduction that horses have been around for over 6000 years.
3. The Amazon rainforest
Argument: As of August 2022 an area that size of Puerto Rico was cut down in the Amazon rainforest. This rate of deforestation is much higher than previous years. It is so high in fact that areas the size of whole countries are being lost in the Amazon.
The above example about deforestation demonstrates how facts and statistics can partially obscure the circularity of an argument. The first and second sentence state that large parts of the amazon are being cut down and describe the severity of this.
The third sentence however, merely restates the first sentence with different wording and does not justify why the rate of deforestation is actually so high. The statistics about the size of the deforested area and its rate of deforestation appear to give the argument validity despite its circularity.
Instead, you would need independent verification of this argument in the third sentence.
4. The existence of God
Argument: God exists because the bible says so and the bible is always right because it is the divine work of God.
While there are plenty of good arguments for the existence of god, you may need to choose your arguments wisely! In the above example, the argument for the existence of God goes around in circles: the premises rely on one another, not on any independent reasoning. We need to find some evidence for God’s existence outside of the bible (or, greater evidence for the infallibility of the Bible) to make a more stable claim.
Argument: Entrepreneurs and small businesses are the only way the economy can truly work well. The stimulation and employment they provide is invaluable. And, it is this stimulation and employment which allows entrepreneurs and small businesses to truly thrive.
- Premise 1: Small businesses are required for an economy to function.
- Premise 2: Small businesses employ people and strengthen the economy.
- Premise 3: A working economy is required for a small business to function.
The above argument about the importance of small businesses in the economy is guilty of circular reasoning. The argument claims that the economy requires small business and entrepreneurs; and also that small business and entrepreneurs require a working economy.
In this argument small business and entrepreneurs are both the cause of a working economy and the consequence of one.
While the circular relationship here may exist (and is why prosperity grows), we need to consult an economist for a more valid explanation for why this circularity exists.
Circular reasoning is a common fallacy, in academia or everyday conversation. Often, the more reasons and concepts in an argument the harder it is to tell if the argument is circular because it is easy just to get lost in the complexity of the argument.
In order to avoid circular reasoning, careful analysis of the reasoning behind the premises and that one or more of the premises are not reliant on – or the same as – the conclusion for their validity. In a logical argument premises need to be valid on their own logical merit in order to support a conclusion.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.