The Motte and Bailey

Publish Date
Principles Series
Last Edit
Apr 3, 2022 01:48 PM
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As we’re not living in Medieval times, I don’t expect too many people to know what a Motte and Bailey is. First seen in 10th century Europe, the Mott-and-bailey castle was ostensibly a well-fortified castle on a hill (the Motte) that overlooked a town (the Bailey), both of which were surrounded by a ditch and wooden palisades.
While such a structure is (sadly) a bit less common today, it lives on as a logical fallacy that has become one of the most common techniques used in modern political discourse.
When it comes to the logical fallacy variety, the Motte is an easy-to-defend and generally common-sense statement – the stronghold. It’s then used in debate to extend and protect the less-defensible claims, the bailey.
An easy visual of the Motte & Bailey
notion image
There are examples abound, to the point where it’d be reasonable to declare an epidemic of castle-building these days. But let’s take one common one from the world of social justice, the Motte that “diversity is good.” That’s a claim that on face is tough to argue with as pretty much all of us want a mix of experiences, variety, and want to see all different kinds of people succeed. And of course, to disagree with that would make it easy to paint someone as *a racist*.
As such, the claim that “diversity is good,” is used to protect a whole array of claims coming from the bailey. But take one: that discrimination or oppression is responsible for any and every “gap” between genders or ethnicities. Said claim is demonstrably false. But as soon as it is attacked, proponents fall back to “But, diversity is good. You aren’t against diversity, are you?”
This is the Motte and Bailey. And while it seems innocuous on the surface, it prevents vibrant debate on a lot of the topics that really matter. The frustrating secret is that pretty much everyone does agree on the various Motte’s of the world. Again, take this case: all but a very fringe extreme would agree that diversity is good. But the questions of what to do about it are different.
So next time you see a political discussion going on, be wary for any Motte & Bailey techniques, and at least learn to spot it!