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 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 purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed. I think it is evident that Troll’s Truisms have the Motte and Bailey property, since the exciting falsehoods constitute the desired but indefensible region within the ditch whilst the trivial truth constitutes the defensible but dank Motte to which one may retreat when pressed.
An entire doctrine or theory may be a Motte and Bailey Doctrine just by virtue of having a central core of defensible but not terribly interesting or original doctrines surrounded by a region of exciting but only lightly defensible doctrines. Just as the medieval Motte was often constructed by the stonemasons art from stone in the surrounding land, the Motte of dull but defensible doctrines is often constructed by the use of the sophists art from the desired but indefensible doctrines lying within the ditch.
Diagnosis of a philosophical doctrine as being a Motte and Bailey Doctrine is invariably fatal. Once made it is relatively obvious to those familiar with the doctrine that the doctrine’s survival required a systematic vacillation between exploiting the desired territory and retreating to the Motte when pressed.
The dialectic between many refutations of specific postmodernist doctrines and the postmodernist defences correspond exactly to the dynamics of Motte and Bailey Doctrines. When pressed with refutation the postmodernists retreat to their Mottes, only to venture out and repossess the desired territory when the refutation is not in immediate evidence. For these reasons, I think the proper diagnosis of postmodernism is precisely that it is a Motte and Bailey Doctrine.
Shackel, N. (2005). The vacuity of postmodernist methodology. Metaphilosophy, 36(3), 295-320.
So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.
Some classic examples:
The religious group that acts for all the world like God is a supernatural creator who builds universes, creates people out of other people’s ribs, parts seas, and heals the sick when asked very nicely (bailey). Then when atheists come around and say maybe there’s no God, the religious group objects “But God is just another name for the beauty and order in the Universe! You’re not denying that there’s beauty and order in the Universe, are you?” (motte). Then when the atheists go away they get back to making people out of other people’s ribs and stuff.
Or…”If you don’t accept Jesus, you will burn in Hell forever.” (bailey) But isn’t that horrible and inhuman? “Well, Hell is just another word for being without God, and if you choose to be without God, God will be nice and let you make that choice.” (motte) Oh, well that doesn’t sound so bad, I’m going to keep rejecting Jesus. “But if you reject Jesus, you will BURN in HELL FOREVER and your body will be GNAWED BY WORMS.” But didn’t you just… “Metaphorical worms of godlessness!”
The feminists who constantly argue about whether you can be a real feminist or not without believing in X, Y and Z and wanting to empower women in some very specific way, and who demand everybody support controversial policies like affirmative action or affirmative consent laws (bailey). Then when someone says they don’t really like feminism very much, they object “But feminism is just the belief that women are people!” (motte) Then once the person hastily retreats and promises he definitely didn’t mean women aren’t people, the feminists get back to demanding everyone support affirmative action because feminism, or arguing about whether you can be a feminist and wear lipstick.
Proponents of pseudoscience sometimes argue that their particular form of quackery will cure cancer or take away your pains or heal your crippling injuries (bailey). When confronted with evidence that it doesn’t work, they might argue that people need hope, and even a placebo solution will often relieve stress and help people feel cared for (motte). In fact, some have argued that quackery may be better than real medicine for certain untreatable diseases, because neither real nor fake medicine will help, but fake medicine tends to be more calming and has fewer side effects. But then once you leave the quacks in peace, they will go back to telling less knowledgeable patients that their treatments will cure cancer.
Critics of the rationalist community note that it pushes controversial complicated things like Bayesian statistics and utilitarianism (bailey) under the name “rationality”, but when asked to justify itself defines rationality as “whatever helps you achieve your goals”, which is so vague as to be universally unobjectionable (motte). Then once you have admitted that more rationality is always a good thing, they suggest you’ve admitted everyone needs to learn more Bayesian statistics.
Likewise, singularitarians who predict with certainty that there will be a singularity, because “singularity” just means “a time when technology is so different that it is impossible to imagine” – and really, who would deny that technology will probably get really weird (motte)? But then every other time they use “singularity”, they use it to refer to a very specific scenario of intelligence explosion, which is far less certain and needs a lot more evidence before you can predict it (bailey).
The motte and bailey doctrine sounds kind of stupid and hard-to-fall-for when you put it like that, but all fallacies sound that way when you’re thinking about them. More important, it draws its strength from people’s usual failure to debate specific propositions rather than vague clouds of ideas. If I’m debating “does quackery cure cancer?”, it might be easy to view that as a general case of the problem of “is quackery okay?” or “should quackery be illegal?”, and from there it’s easy to bring up the motte objection.
Scott Alexander, “All in all, another brick in the motte”, Slate Star Codex, 3 November 2014
Suppose I define socialism as, “a system of totalitarian control over the economy, leading inevitably to mass poverty and death.” As a detractor of socialism, this is superficially tempting. But it’s sheer folly, for two distinct reasons.
First, this plainly isn’t what most socialists mean by “socialism.” When socialists call for socialism, they’re rarely requesting totalitarianism, poverty, and death. And when non-socialists listen to socialists, that’s rarely what they hear, either.
Second, if you buy this definition, there’s no point studying actual socialist regimes to see if they in fact are “totalitarian” or “inevitably lead to mass poverty and death.” Mere words tell you what you need to know.
What’s the problem? The problem is that I’ve provided an argumentative definition of socialism. Instead of rigorously distinguishing between what we’re talking about and what we’re saying about it, an argumentative definition deliberately interweaves the two.
The hidden hope, presumably, is that if we control the way people use words, we’ll also control what people think about the world. And it is plainly possible to trick the naive using these semantic tactics. But the epistemic cost is high: You preemptively end conversation with anyone who substantively disagrees with you - and cloud your own thinking in the process. It’s far better to neutrally define socialism as, say, “Government ownership of most of the means of production,” or maybe, “The view that each nation’s wealth is justly owned collectively by its citizens.” You can quibble with these definitions, but people can accept either definition regardless of their position on socialism itself.
Modern discussions are riddled with argumentative definitions, but the most prominent instance, lately, is feminism. Google “feminism,” and what do you get? The top hit: “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” I’ve heard many variants on this: “the theory that men and women should be treated equally,” or even “the radical notion that women are people.”
What’s argumentative about these definitions? Well, in this 2016 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 40% of women and 67% of men did not consider themselves “feminists.” But over 90% of both genders agreed that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” If Google’s definition of feminism conformed to standard English usage, these patterns would make very little sense. Imagine a world where 90% of men say they’re “bachelors,” but only 40% say they’re “unmarried.”
Bryan Caplan, Against Argumentative Definitions: The Case of Feminism, EconLog, 20 February 2018
Added to diary 21 April 2018