In recent years I’ve noticed more and more people misusing the terms “begging the question” or “begs the question.” They use it as if “begging” and “begs” are synonyms for “raising” and “raises.” But “begging the question” has a specific meaning: it means “assuming as given that which is to be shown.”

When I point that out to people, they often get it and, quite reasonably, ask for an example in actual conversation, not just in a hypothetical conversation, of someone begging the question. Watching John Stossel’s show last night, I saw the cleanest example of begging the question that I’ve seen in years.

Stossel was having a legal prostitute from Nevada debate Fox News legal analyst Lis Wiehl on whether prostitution should be legal. Wiehl was saying it shouldn’t be. The issue at hand was NOT whether existing laws against prostitution should be enforced: it was whether there should be such laws. That was clear to all three participants.

At a number of key points, after the prostitute had made a cogent argument, Stossel would turn to Wiehl and say, “OK, what’s your argument against that? Why should prostitution be illegal?” Two or three times, in response to that question, Wiehl answered “Public policy.”

Now that’s a reasonable answer if you’re a prosecutor, as Wiehl had been, and you’re called on to enforce existing law. But, as I noted above, that was clearly not the issue being debated. The issue being debated was whether there should be laws against prostitution. In other words, the issue being debated was what public policy should be. Wiehl justified the particular public policy–a ban on prostitution–by arguing that the justification for that public policy is that it’s public policy. That’s begging the question.

By the way, nothing in the above is meant to imply that Wiehl is not a good legal analyst. I think she is and, on the “Is It Legal?” segment of The O’Reilly Factor, I find her reasoning on the law more cogent than that of her counterpart Kimberly Guilfoyle. But if this one episode on Stossel is any indication, Lis Wiehl is much better at answering the question “Is It Legal?” than the question “Should It Be Legal and Why?”