Agreed; I made a similar point here.

Motte/bailey doctrine is often a byproduct of distributed argumentation

by Three-Monkey Mind 1 min read5th Mar 20204 comments

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confidence: I think I'm on to something

(I'm posting this publicly because I'd like it to get passed around for corrections, both nitpicky (typos, thinkos) and important (glaring errors in logic). I need to whip up a better title for it, too. Corrections appreciated.)

Prior reading:

It bothers me when other people use a troll’s truism in a discussion. It probably bothers you, too. A person uses a troll’s truism when he claims something bold and, when his audience rejects his claim, reformulates his claim into something innocuous and asserts that the reformulation is a restatement of the initial, rejected assertion.

Now, when someone deploys troll’s truisms out of unthinking habit or tactical choice, this is referred to as motte-and-bailey doctrine. Someone adheres to motte-and-bailey doctrine when he regularly puts forward an expansive claim (the bailey), and, if the expansive claim isn’t accepted, retreats to a more defensible position (the motte).

At the end of the post, Alexander points out one of the problems inherent in debating a broad-ranging idea (in this case, feminism). Finally, he has a good suggestion to help avoid motte-and-bailey switches in the middle of a conversation:

So what is the real feminism we should be debating? Why would you even ask that question? What is this, some kind of dumb high school debate club? Who the heck thinks it would be a good idea to say “Here’s a vague poorly-defined concept that mind-kills everyone who touches it — quick, should you associate it with positive affect or negative affect?!”

Taboo your words, then replace the symbol with the substance. If you have an actual thing you’re trying to debate, then it should be obvious when somebody’s changing the topic. If working out who’s using motte-and-bailey (or weak man) is remotely difficult, it means your discussion went wrong several steps earlier and you probably have no idea what you’re even arguing about.

Unfortunately, this only works when there are a small number of people involved — no more than two or three. If the discussion is happening at your (anti)favorite social-networking site, you might have an argument structure like the following:

  • A, B, and C all believe and argue for bailey β
  • D, E, F, and G all believe and argue for motte µ
  • H, J, and K all believe and argue for bailey β′,
    which is close to, but not quite the same as, β
  • L and M both believe and argue for µ′,
    which is close to, but not quite the same as, µ

In a situation like this, you can’t press the caps-lock key and shout “STOP EQUIVOCATING BETWEEN β AND µ!” You’re dealing with a bunch of different people who’ve formed their own opinions at least somewhat independently of each other. You’re being motte-and-baileyed, but not necessarily because this is a deliberate strategy[1] being employed by A, B, C, H, J, or K.

If you’re anything like me, you’d like a solution to the problem of being subject to a distributed troll’s truism attack. Unfortunately, I don’t have one. One cannot make A, B, and C all agree with either D, E, F, and G. For that matter, you can’t make them agree with H, J, and K.


  1. Extra-credit assignment: Design a bailey/motte pair to advance your favorite cause. See to it that some people will believe the entire bailey, while others will find the mere motte most persuasive. Ensure that bailey-believers and motte-believers congregate in the same spaces. ↩︎

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