Motte and bailey

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Motte and bailey (MAB) is a combination of bait-and-switch and equivocation in which someone switches 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 a viewpoint. Someone will argue the easy-to-defend position (motte) temporarily, to ward off critics, while the less-defensible position (bailey) remains the desired belief, yet is never actually defended.

In short: instead of defending a controversial position (the "bailey"), the arguer retreats to defending a less controversial position (the "motte"), while acting as though the positions are equivalent. When the motte has been accepted (or found impenetrable) by an opponent, the arguer returns to the bailey and can claim the bailey has not been refuted.

Note that the MAB works only if the motte and the bailey are sufficiently similar (at least superficially) that one can switch between them while pretending that they are equivalent. There exist a number of common rhetorical ploys and 'sleights-of-tongue' which can mask the apparency of such a transition.

The MAB is a fallacious argument style.


  1. Person A asserts [Controversial Interpretation of Viewpoint X].
  2. Person B critiques [Controversial Interpretation of Viewpoint X].
  3. Person A asserts that they were actually defending [Common-Sense Interpretation of Viewpoint X].
  4. Person B no longer has grounds to critique Person A; Person B leaves the discussion.
  5. Person A claims victory and discreetly reverts to actually supporting [Controversial Interpretation of Viewpoint X].


This slight variation of the original may be particularly effective in short-form mediums such as Twitter threads and live debates.

  1. Person A asserts something in a sufficiently ambiguous way that it can be interpreted either as [Controversial Interpretation of Viewpoint X] or as [Common-Sense Interpretation of Viewpoint X].
  2. Person B critiques [Controversial Interpretation of Viewpoint X].
  3. Person A asserts that they were actually defending [Common-Sense Interpretation of Viewpoint X].
  4. Person B either leaves the discussion or complains that person A was ambiguous.
  5. Person A claims victory and discreetly reverts to actually supporting [Controversial Interpretation of Viewpoint X].

Origins and explanation[edit]

The term "motte and bailey" was created by Nicholas Shackel, a British professor of philosophy. Shackel named it after the motte-and-bailey castle,Wikipedia in which a highly-protected stone-fortified keep (the motte) is accompanied by an enclosed courtyard protected by sharpened wooden palisades (the bailey).[1][2] Shackel used the phrase to criticize postmodernists who switch between arguing for uncontroversial statements, such as stating that culture influences a person's interpretation of the world (an easy-to-defend motte), and promoting highly controversial positions, e.g., that interpretations of the world based on religious mythology are as valid as scientific interpretations (an indefensible bailey). When the bailey (every-viewpoint-is-valid) is confronted, they often retreat to the motte (culture-shapes-our-experiences) and mock the critic for — supposedly — thinking this isn't true.

This method is an example of the "two-step", in which one repeatedly appears to concede weaker parts of an argument, then re-asserts the original claim, unaltered. The name refers to a quick and repetitious dance step. It relies on short attention span, short memories, and/or rapidly changing audience.


  • People enamoured of "Objectivism" sometimes argue that the universe has always existed (to defend the atheistic view that there is no need to postulate a creation, and for other more specifically Objectivist purposes). They sometimes contend that it is a logically necessary truth that something must always have existed (bailey). But when pressed they satisfy themselves with establishing that existence is existence (A = A) (motte — and a tautology). However, this is not the necessary view apropos of atheism or, vice versa, necessary apropos of the rejection of causa prima. It is simply stated by Jean-Paul SartreWikipedia as "Existence precedes essence." Nevertheless, such a conclusion that the universe has always existed, because existence is existence, would be completely absurd.
  • “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.” This phrase uses multiple meanings of the word "strong" to make itself mean different things to different people.
    • In the first meaning, it starts with a tautology, as "strong" is synonymous with doing what is good for society. The second part, that good times create people who are selfish and lazy, is pessimistic and non-obvious, but easy enough to defend by using unfalsifiable tactics to argue that "your counterexample just hasn't been experiencing Good Times for long enough yet."
    • In the second meaning, which acts as the bailey, "strong" is treated as synonymous with "militaristic". That is, the argument is that hard times lead to a strong military, this well-defended country experiences prosperity, and then those darned pacifists come out and ruin everything. This second reading allows the phrase to act as a right-wing dog whistle. It is also clearly falsifiable by looking at all the popularity of pacifism, which is usually created not by peace, but in response to the impression of unending and futile war.
  • "Everything happens for a reason". At face value, the statement is consistent with the principle of cause and effect. However, "reason" often means a conscious reason (God's plan) or positive intent, not just happenstance.
  • Arguments in regards to the existence of God can also fall into this fallacy. For example, theists may sometimes define "God" as intervening in the universe etc., but when pressed on this point, might use the vaguer concept that he's the "ground of all being". Atheists too can commit the fallacy if definitions of atheism are shifted between, e.g. through defining atheism as a lack of belief when arguing with theists, yet elsewhere confidently declaring there is no God (a positive disbelief). This could also occur implicitly, for instance through assuming metaphysical naturalism, i.e. a view which entails that God (as usually defined) does not exist, yet insisting on a "lack of belief" atheism even if their overall metaphysics would entail this be otherwise (instead of defending the view).
  • Another common example described by Shackel is inventing Humpty Dumpty definitions. From Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where Humpty Dumpty confuses Alice by using words with non-standard meanings, explaining "When I use a word, ... it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less." For example, in Barbara Applebaum's Being White, Being Good, she argues every single person on the planet she labels "white" is responsible for racism by virtue of them being white (bailey). When challenged that not all such people cause racism, she retreats into a motte by saying when she uses the word "responsibility," she means "benefits from" rather than "causes" or "contributes to," a definition no one accepts but, when substituting that Humpty Dumpty definition into her claim, eliminates most of the elements of the claim that made it controversial. Similarly, when describing all white people as "privileged" no matter how disadvantaged one might be (bailey), she retreats into a Humpty Dumpty motte by re-defining privilege to mean something unrelated to its generally accepted meaning: "Privilege is not only a matter of receiving benefits but also consists in ways of being in the world."
  • The moral panic over critical race theory uses this as the main argument. The argument goes that children shouldn't be made to feel guilty for atrocities committed before they were born (or equivalently, that not every white person in the world is racist) (motte), but then in practice extend this to argue that any discussion of slavery and racism, even purely historical, should be prohibited (bailey). When a progressive refutes the bailey, they are then falsely claimed to oppose the motte, which is why this tactic has been so successful.
  • Supporters of scientific racism often argue that human physiology is affected by genetics and evolution (motte) while failing to defend their bailey (usually genetic differences in race and IQ).
  • Arguments against nuclear power often involve the motte and bailey tactic. It's not a secret that anti-nuclear activism has historically been motivated by the fear of accidents and often associated with doomsday scenarios. However, since nuclear power is evidently among the safest and cleanest ways to produce energy,[3] the argument that nuclear power is unsafe cannot be empirically defended. Hence, the most common anti-nuclear arguments have shifted away from safety issues and are now more focused on the economics, specifically the high costs and cost overruns associated with recent nuclear construction efforts. Such arguments have become popular especially when renewables (solar and wind) became cheaper than recent nuclear construction based on LCOE estimates. Although, LCOE is not an appropriate metric to compare different energy sources.[4] Back when renewables were still very expensive, the economic argument was flipped when applied to renewables. If renewables are expensive, we should support them with subsidies, but if nuclear is expensive, we should kill it. Environmental activist George Monbiot has noted this double-standard during a discussion with Caroline Lucas (former leader of the UK green party).

One of the most frequent arguments against nuclear power is that it costs too much. Many environmentalists claim that, when all the hidden costs, especially the massive decommissioning liabilities, are taken into account, electricity from atomic plants could cost as much as 5p per kilowatt hour or even more. The highest figure I have come across was the top end of the range of estimates produced by the New Economics Foundation – 8.3p. If this is correct – and I should emphasise that it’s an extreme outlier – it suggests that nuclear is an extravagant means of generating low-carbon electricity.

So why do the same people support a feed-in tariff scheme under which we pay 41p per kilowatt hour for rooftop solar electricity?

Last week I argued about these issues with Caroline Lucas. Caroline is one of my heroes, and the best thing to have happened to Parliament since time immemorial. But this doesn’t mean that she can’t be wildly illogical when she chooses. When I raised the issue of the feed-in tariff, she pointed out that the difference between subsidising nuclear power and subsidising solar power is that nuclear is a mature technology and solar is not. In that case, I asked, would she support research into thorium reactors, which could provide a much safer and cheaper means of producing nuclear power? No, she told me, because thorium reactors are not a proven technology. Words fail me.[1]

While there are legitimate complains about the high costs of (some instances of) nuclear, historical data shows that high costs are not inevitable, and cost can in fact be reduced with proper management, standardization, and "learning-by-doing".[2] Thus, the "nuclear is too expensive" argument (the 'motte') doesn't justify the anti-nuclear position (the 'bailey'), which remains motivated by the fear of the technology itself, not the associated costs. The 'Motte' can be broken down in (at least) several ways: Point out examples of nuclear power being constructed on time and on budget, and ask if they support nuclear power in such instances when it is cost effective; or point out that their complaint of nuclear being too expensive logically entails their support for the long-term operation of nuclear power. Since nuclear power has high construction but low operation costs, forcing existing nuclear power plants to retire prematurely would only make it more expensive. After pointing this out, expect them to abandon the economic 'motte' and reveal their 'bailey' position on safety, waste disposal, nuclear war, etc.


By arguing the weak bailey, yet temporarily retreating to the strong motte when attacked, the arguer can claim (or pretend):

  • That the arguer never admitted to being wrong about anything. Strictly, this is true — the arguer never explicitly admitted defeat.
  • That the arguer has been defending the more defensible position the whole time.
  • That the critic is a fool for not agreeing with an obviously correct statement.
  • That the controversial belief is counter-intuitive yet true, since it appears unassailable.

What it is not[edit]

Clarifying one's views to exclude an incorrect, expansive interpretation is not a motte-and-bailey fallacy, provided that what you defend is a correct and intended interpretation of your earlier statements. The problem with the motte and bailey is that it represents a constantly shifting target: now easy, now hard.

See also[edit]


  1. Shackel 2005 'The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology.' Metaphilosophy. Vol. 36 pp. 295-320. Available Updated here: Motte and Bailey Doctrines
  2. Motte and Bailey Doctrines by Nicholas Shackel
  3. Our World In Data - Safest Sources of Energy
  4. Science Direct