The Devious Motte-and-Bailey Fallacy

Way back in 1066 AD, William the First took a notion to extend his power from Normandy and conquer England. People who have been invaded are not too fond of the idea. Bill knew this, and acted quickly to keep control, so he built a passel of strongholds.

These castles could be built rather quickly with available wood. (Later, castles would be made of stone.) The wide area that was protected which was known as the bailey. The nearby hill, existing or manufactured, had the top leveled off for the greater stronghold, the motte. This is where the keep, often a tower, was built.

The motte-and-bailey fallacy resembles a reverse straw man. Atheists, leftists, and evolutionists use this frequently. We need to learn to counter it.
Windsor Castle with motte and bailey, Flickr / Mike McBey (CC BY 2.0)
The basic idea of a motte and bailey was successful, since attackers would have to get through the outer defenses first, then they would have to fight the greater defenses going uphill. When the attack was thwarted or abandoned, the people would leave the motte and return to bailey life.

This layout has been applied to a particularly devious logical fallacy. We have discussed the straw man fallacy where, essentially, someone misrepresents the position of another and knocks down that straw version. (Similarly, expecting someone to defend a position they do not hold). Here is one that is like an opposite, the Mott the Hoople fallacy —

"No, that's an old rock band, Cowboy Bob!"

Oh, right. The motte-and-bailey fallacy is when someone holds a ridiculous position (bailey) that cannot be defended. When challenged, he heads for safer ground (motte), and may pretend that he held this position all along, or that it is an area upon which people can agree.

It is sneaky because the original position (bailey) is left alone, and the safe position (motte) is given the appearance of having been the original argument! In a way, it is also equivocation because the impression is given of having defended the original bailey idea. When you spot this as well as the straw man, the original topic or position is what needs discussing, not a substitute.

The motte-and-bailey fallacy is used by atheists and evolutionists. They have bailey positions, but those annoying Christians and biblical creationists who have done their homework challenge their positions and they do the motte thing. It may be difficult to see this particular fallacy in action, but we can see that they are changing the subject and moving to what they perceive is safer ground.

Christians and creationists need to learn about these things, or at least notice when professing atheists and evolutionists change topics. Also, we must use our minds and glorify God with good reasoning and avoid faulty reasoning ourselves.

What follows is an editorial from Creation magazine, which has references to content in that particular issue. Even so, the content is helpful and worth reading a couple of times.

Nicholas Shackel, Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University (Wales), applied this design to name the motte-and-bailey fallacy. This fallacy originates from an arguer holding a very controversial and hard-to-defend position (‘bailey’). When refuted, the arguer retreats to a non-controversial and easily defendable position (‘motte’), pretending this was his real view all the time. When opponents agree that the motte view is fine, the arguer returns to the bailey. And then makes the false equivalence: if the motte is defensible, then so is the bailey.

To read the entire article, visit "Medieval castles and modern fallacies." Also worth reading is "Logical Fallacies: Motte-and-Bailey Arguments." The pair of these should be helpful, Hoss.

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