Motte and bailey
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Logic and rhetoric
Motte and bailey (MAB) is a combination of bait-and-switch and equivocation in which someone switches at will between a "motte" (an easy-to-defend and often common-sense statement, such as "culture shapes our experiences") and a "bailey" (a hard-to-defend and more controversial statement, such as "cultural knowledge is just as valid as scientific knowledge") in order to defend their viewpoint. Someone will "support" the easy-to-defend (motte) temporarily, to ward off critics, but does not actually believe what they're saying. The "difficult" (bailey) version always remains the desired belief, but is never actually defended. For all intents and purposes, the MAB'er is defending a "ghost" belief.
In short: instead of defending a difficult idea ("bailey") you retreat to an easy idea ("motte") and act as if they're the same. With some creative license, it is essentially comparable to strawmanning your own position, but into something stronger. Like a turtle withdrawing its head into its body, leaving only the hard parts exposed — the motte denotes the simplification of your own position for the purpose of ease of defensibility. When the threat is passed, the turtle emerges from its protective hull and assumes its full form once more. In other words, when the motte has been accepted (or found impenetrable) by your opponent, you can go along your merry way defending the motte (all the while actually believing the bailey yourself).
It is important that MAB only works where the motte and the bailey are superficially similar enough that you can switch between them while pretending that they are the same thing.
The MAB is a fallacious argument style.
- Person A asserts [Controversial Interpretation of Viewpoint X].
- Person B critiques [Controversial Interpretation of Viewpoint X].
- Person A asserts that they were actually defending [Common-Sense Interpretation of Viewpoint X].
- Person B no longer has grounds to critique Person A; Person B leaves the discussion.
- Person A claims victory and reverts to supporting [Controversial Interpretation of Viewpoint X].
Origins and explanation
The term "motte and bailey" itself was created by Nicholas Shackel, a British professor of Philosophy. Shackel named it after the motte-and-bailey castle, in which a highly-protected stone-fortified keep (the motte) is accompanied by an enclosed courtyard protected by sharpened wooden palisades (the bailey). Shackel used the phrase to criticize postmodernists who would switch between uncontroversial statements, such as stating that culture influences a person's interpretation of the world (motte; easy-to-defend), and then makes highly controversial statements, such as stating that interpretations of the world based in religious mythology are as valid as scientific interpretations (bailey; hard-to-defend). When the bailey (every-viewpoint-is-valid) is confronted they would often retreat to the motte (culture-shapes-our-experiences) and mock you for -- supposedly -- thinking it wasn't true.
A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of pleasantly habitable land (the Bailey), which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier, such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible, and so neither is the Bailey. Rather, one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land. For my original purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents philosophical propositions with similar properties: desirable to their proponents but only lightly defensible. The Motte represents the defensible but undesired propositions to which one retreats when hard pressed. Shackel 2014
Usually, someone will put forward the bailey -- something controversial -- and retreat to the motte when attacked, preventing further criticism, before returning to the controversial bailey. This allows them to claim:
- That the MAB user never admitted being wrong about anything. Strictly, this is true -- they never explicitly admitted defeat. But to defend their position they were forced to compromise it.
- That the MAB user has been defending the uncontroversial statement (motte) the whole time, despite having flip-flopped twice in one discussion!
- That the critic is a fool for not agreeing with an obviously correct statement (motte).
- That the controversial belief is counter-intuitive yet somehow true, since it appears unassailable.
What it is not
Clarifying one's views is not a motte-and-bailey fallacy, so long as you do not contradict your earlier statements. The problem with the motte and bailey is that it represents a constantly shifting target: now easy, now hard.
- Shackel 2005 ‘The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology.’ Metaphilosophy. Vol. 36 pps. 295-320. Available https://philpapers.org/rec/SHATVO-2. Updated here: Motte and Bailey Doctrines
- Motte and Bailey Doctrines by Nicholas Shackel
- Motte and Bailey Doctrines
- Motte and Bailey Doctrines by Nicholas Shackel