Motte and bailey

New Warhorn Media post by Nathan Alberson:


Not quite done yet but THANK YOU!

I’ve had back-and-forths with two parachurch groups and some leaders at the school we help run about the motte-and-bailey fallacy as it pertains to COVID policies (I’m a physician FTR).

Basic summary: “masks don’t work” is the bailey and “the strength of the evidence of masks as a mitigation strategy doesn’t warrant criminalizing non-mask use” is the motte. Obviously the latter is more easily defensible but doesn’t generate the rage clicks.

And I just had a similar M-and-B conversation w/ my son about race issues in the US.

You’re right: once you see it, you can’t unsee it, and you see it everywhere.


The other notable recent script of the M-and-B is the self-flagellation:
Public figure: “I’m a racist.”
Public: “OK you should resign from you position.”
Public figure: “Well not that kind of racist.”


It’s kind of like putting on the glasses in that one alien movie. Suddenly you see the undergirding of the whole horrible world.

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I’m just disappointed you didn’t make it an interview with Pastor Tim and call the episode Motte and Bayly. :joy:


We thought about it but then we’d have to have the owner of Mott’s Apple Juice on as counterpoint.


Grateful for this episode. I’m new to this concept as well, but I wanted to see if I could help a little, since I don’t think you quite captured the essence of how motte-and-bailey is used. You kinda made it sound like the motte is a contradictory or perhaps even unrelated claim which is used to soften the force of what is actually being advanced, or which is kept in your back pocket to make people think you’re not really saying what it sounds like you’re saying. One of your examples was: You’re breaking the 10 Commandments (bailey, controversial); but it’s an issue of conscience (motte, easily defensible). That’s not quite motte-and-bailey, as those are clearly contradictory claims, and advancing both is simply doublespeak. M&b is also not really a problem of emphasis. Which is to say, it’s not just a controversial claim with underemphasized exceptions or escape clauses. It can be used that way, but that doesn’t seem to be the essence of the fallacy.

M&b is a sleight of hand which conflates two related claims. The bailey is controversial. The motte is related, but more easily defensible. The sleight of hand occurs when arguments for the motte are made to seem as if they are actually arguments for the bailey.

Where I’ve seen this recently is in arguments about lesser magistrates and the concept of unlimited vs. limited obedience to the civil magistrate. People will assert that Christians have a moral imperative to resist government “overreach.” That’s controversial, and that’s the bailey. When they begin to argue, however, their arguments are arguments that Christians are not required to obey the civil government to an unlimited degree; that’s the motte. The sleight of hand is accomplished when the arguments for obeying God rather than men (a premise with which Christians universally agree) are presented as if they’re arguments for a moral obligation to “resist” government “overreach.” (Terms in the bailey-claim are often vague and under-defined, so as to obscure the bailey’s indefensibility.)

The reason it’s effective and tricky is because when someone is engaging in m&b, you tend to agree with all of the arguments they’re making. What you have to discern is when their arguments are not arguments for their controversial claim, but are simply arguments for a different but related claim which is subtly being conflated with the controversial claim.


Very helpful, Alex. Almost a month ago, a number of us received this email from Andrew Henry who, before he became a successful holsterer, taught our children at Cedars Christian School:

Subject: Motte-and-bailey Tactic

I hadn’t heard this particular tactic articulated before, but you may have. It’s incredibly helpful for me, and I started recognizing this type of argument all over the place, ESPECIALLY in the back and forth with [these guys] about masks.

They advance a controversial position, and then when challenged, fall back on an easily defensible one that can be conflated with the controversial one, leaving the readers with the impression that the controversial position is solid and defensible, even when it isn’t.

Wikipedia calls it a fallacy, but it’s a tactic if you do it intentionally, and it’s a dishonest tactic, though highly effective.

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Let me try this out.

Bailey: Christians should be suffering all the time for their Gospel work, so if no one has thrown a brick through your window you messed up, etc.

Motte: Christ said we would suffer. James said count it all joy. They hated me…

Second related:

Bailey: If you’re not stinking in the nostrils of your co-workers you’ve failed. They should be angered to the point of contacting HR at how much you pray, read the Bible, and proselytize. If you’re not hitting headlines with your wrongful termination lawsuit you failed.

Motte: To some the aroma of life unto life and others death unto death.

Is that the essense? Those arguments are brutal because of the conflation.


If you really want to stir the pot, you could do an episode about the post hoc fallacy and vaccines.


I don’t know if the Sanityverse can handle that sort of spiciness

This was my first exposure to the motte and bailey fallacy, but I think I found an example in the wild (edited to focus on the motte and bailey):

Metaxas I wasn’t in D.C. for the Capitol riots. But I was blown away at how instantly anybody who supported Trump—which is, you know, half the country—was demonized as potential white domestic terrorists. I just thought, Holy cow. What am I, in Nazi Germany? This is really sick. That’s not what we do in America.

Interviewer Do you believe that Trump supporters are like Jews in Hitler’s Germany?

Metaxas The point is, in Germany, if you didn’t go along with the party line, you would be demonized. You would get in trouble. People just think, I hope I don’t get in trouble, so what do I have to say or not say to get in trouble? At that moment, you cease to be free.

We’re kind of getting there. Even a millimeter in that direction is too close for comfort for me.