Ambiguous Etiologies

Introduction: The image at left is a screenshot of the pinned tweet on the twitter account of someone going by “Travis for President.” This appears to be an attempted commentary on vaccination mandates, as born out by his own comment just below the original post.

Key Facts: The post is clearly intended to comment on vaccination and/or mask mandates in relation to Covid19 mitigation. Covid19 is an infectious disease. Allergies are not contagious.

Text: “I hate allergy season. I took Claritin, but nobody else did so my allergy medicine isn’t working.”


Comments: It’s not entirely clear how serious to take the account or any of its arguments, but it’s posts are consistently aligned with the Trump movement in general, and the anti-vaccination movement in particular. So, it seems fair to think the source means for this argument to be taken seriously. It is possible that he also thinks of this as parody in some way, but if so, the focus on the irony is quite unclear.

Statements: One problem with this argument is that doesn’t attempt to refute a specific claim so much as a pattern of reasoning. It does so by satirizing that pattern. So, much of the actual reasoning is implied and we have to reconstruct many of the statements used in that reasoning. Each of the missing statements here seems strongly implied, but it is difficult to arrive at the actual wording of statement 6. I have presented two different versions, one [6a] attempting to describe the actual basis for vaccine mandates as I can get it and one [6b] presenting a more general expectation that medications must be generally applied to be effective in individual cases.

[a] I hate allergy season.

[1] I took Claritin.

[2] nobody else did

[b] so

[3] my allergy medicine isn’t working.

[4] [Allergy medication would not cease working as a result of these circumstances.]

[5] [Vaccine mandates are not reasonable.]

[6a] [Vaccines are mandated because broad use by the general public is critical to their success in preventing spread of disease.]

[6b] [Vaccines are mandated because broad use by the general public is critical to the success of any medication, even for those who use them.]

Diagram: This is a relatively simple argument. 1+2+[6]->3 is the explicit argument advanced in the tweet. 3+[4]->[5] introduces the implied criticism to arrive at a statement against vaccination.

Discussion: The following themes come up in this argument: Ambiguity, Analogy, Meta-Argumentation, Micro-Reasoning, Missing Assertions, Parody, Poe’s Law, Reductio ad Absurdum, Straw Man, Sub-deduction.

Ambiguity: Because much of this argument is implied, it leaves us with at least one tricky question. Does the author literally believe (or want others to believe) that vaccines and allergy medications are no different with respect to this issue? If the answer to this is yes, then we could represent that belief in the form of a missing assumption, but I can think of no relevant version of that assumption which would not be false. In the diagram above, I have used what I take to be a reasonable approximation of a pro-mandate position in statement 6a, but this would not help the author get to statement 3. Statement 6b incorporates the analogy between allergy medications and vaccines, which would make the inference stronger, but only by including an assumption that is clearly false, and which is NOT representative of the case for vaccine mandates.

We can move the problem around a little (putting it in the truth values of his assumptions or logical value of his inferences. What we can’t do is make the problem go away. One way or another this is a deeply flawed argument, so much so that it is tempting to think that it make be intended as a joke. It is, however, by no means clear that the author does not wish to be taken taken seriously, and it may well be that he hasn’t made up his own mind as to how serious he is about this argument.

Analogy: One way or another, this argument involves some form of analogical reasoning. The author is suggesting that allergies and viruses and their treatment are the same in at least some critical respect. What that is, he does not say, but most people would suggest that the contagious nature of a virus makes it significantly different from allergies in a way that is directly relevant to questions about the threats posed by others. It’s tough to see how anything could override this very substantial difference.

Meta-Argumentation: Insofar as the author of this argument is mocking the reasoning of those supporting vaccine mandates, he is engaging in an argument about the arguments produced by others. It might have been more interesting if he had referred directly to some specific pro-mandate text, but as it stands, he is presenting this as a kind of general parody of pro-vaccination rhetoric.

Micro-reasoning: As with most any tweet, this argument doesn’t really provide us with enough detail to understand its authors actual reasoning.

Missing Assertions: This argument contains three assertions which are missing from the original text, but strongly implied. I think statements [4] and [5] represent the author’s intent pretty well, but it is difficult to tell just how he would frame the specific wording for statement [6]. If statement 6 isn’t drawn broadly, then it will not produce any reason to infer 3 from statements 1 and 2, but if it is drawn broadly (as in version 6b), then it becomes a simple caricature of the actual pro-mandate position, and this effectively makes the entire argument a straw man. So, there is no way to make statement 6 work.

Poe’s Law: This argument beautifully illustrates a generalized version of Poe’s Law insofar as the utter absurdity of so much anti-vaccination makes it difficult to discern whether or not this utterly foolish argument is meant to be taken seriously or not.

Parody: The actual argument produced by this author is clearly a parody of arguments in favor of a vaccine mandate. The shear absurdity of this argument makes it tempting to think that it is actually offered as a parody of right wing (anti-vax) reasoning, but apart from the utter foolishness of this and other posts made on the account, the author gives us no specific reason to think he means to mock the anti-vax camp. It seems more likely that he really criticize vaccination mandates with this argument.

Reducatio ad Absurdum: This argument is an effort to reduce the argument in favor of vaccine mandates to an absurdity (in this case, the position that allergy medication won’t work if it isn’t taken by others). One could think of the first inference as his sub-deduction, predicated on some vague sense of the basis for vaccine mandates. To say that it fails is putting it mildly.

Straw Man: Insofar as the only version of 6 which would make the sub-deduction of the argument work is not represent of the pro-mandate position, this argument does appear to be a straw man. A more modest variation of 6 might eliminate this problem, but such a variation would fail to generate the necessary inference.

Sub-Deduction: The sub-deduction in this argument fails. Without statement [6], there is no reason to infer statements 3 from statements 1 and 2. Statement 6a still doesn’t get us there, and statement 6b does so only at the expense of being both manifestly false and completely unrepresentative of the case for vaccine mandates. the sub-deduction of this argument fails either way.

Evaluation: This argument fails, because the first inference is unsound.

Final Thoughts: Yes, I spent way too much time on this one.

Argument from Biography

The first time I ever heard this phrase I took it to be just a clever bit of snark, but I find myself more and more referring to certain arguments in terms of this very phrase. I have seen the phrase used to describe arguments bolstering the authority of a given party on the basis of their personal biography, and these references often focus on the inadequacy of the support given in each individual case. The “argument from biography” is certainly not a recognized fallacy, and the label isn’t even a common internet idiom. (It’s not one of the established negs of net-logic.) In any event, I do think this label identifies a common problem in reasoning, and I think the label has some advantageous over the more established vocabulary in helping to address that problem.

I would apply this label to arguments in which someone appeals to their personal life experience in support for a controversial statement. This of course means the “argument from biography” is really an argument from autobiography, or at least, that’s the form it usually takes. It could also be described as an “appeal to personal experience,” but most of the discussion using that label seems to fall well short of describing the total scope of the problem.

There are certainly claims that you could legitimately support with personal testimony, but the argument from biography comes into play when a speaker (or writer) willfully stretches their personal credibility beyond the scope of any reasonable claim that could be drawn from personal experience. For example, a military veteran bases a justification for a controversial war on the argument that he would know because he was there, a member of a given ethnic group claims to speak for the rest of those sharing his or her identity, or someone attempts to support broad generalizations about a group they disagree with on the basis of their personal interactions with people from that group. Often the argument from biography comes mixed with a categorical dismissal of any views (or at least any contrary views) coming from those who do not share the speaker’s own personal connection to the issue. Speakers using this tactic may in effect demand a comparable biography as a kind of minimum requirement for contributing to the discussion at hand.

This type of argument raises at least two conventional problems in reasoning; the appeal to anecdotal evidence and the fallacious appeal to authority. This sort of argument also raises problems associated with interactional eclipse. It is tempting to suggest that the argument from biography could be understood in terms of either of the first two categories, but I still think the problem with these arguments rests on the particular blend of both conventional fallacies along with the interactional consequences of using the gambit.

Anecdotal Evidence: In most of the arguments that strike me as fitting under this label, the speaker asks us to take their own personal testimony as a definitive statement about what people with their personal experience think about a given subject. This leads to a common problem of trying to assess just how representative the story of the speaker is for those with a personal connection to the issue. Cherry Picking, Hasty Generalization, and Tokenism are all likely to be at issue here.

The personalization of the isue often obscures the relationship between the particular nature of the speaker’s claims and the generalized conclusions they often seek to advance. Often, those advancing such an argument seem to represent themselves almost as an avatar of those sho share their experiences, an indexical icon through which others can be heard to speak. A speaker doing this may even say ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ in some parts of their narrative. In some cases, the argument may turn less on a kind of statistical reasoning than a quality of moral licensing.

Note that in some cases the gap between the evidence from the personal experiences of the speaker and the truth of their conclusions is not a function of anecdotal evidence. For example soldiers commenting on the wisdom of fighting a given war on the basis of their personal experiences are talking about something those experiences would not fully address. Whether or not President Johnson’s decision to increase U.S. involvement in Vietnam, for example, was likely to accomplish any significant diplomatic goals is simply not a question of what it felt like to be a soldier in that conflict. At least some of the considerations involved in that question would relate to things simply not apparent on the ground of the conflict itself. Those addressing the conflict through the argument from biography ignore such considerations altogether. In this case, the problem is closer to a generic red herring than it is to the specific problems of anecdotal evidence.

Fallacious Appeal to Authority: Personal testimony always carries a degree of an authority-based argument insofar as the speaker represents their own experience as the warrant for believing whatever it is they tell us, but the argument from biography strains this authority in a variety of ways. It is one thing, for example, to say that one has met a number of people from a given group who display a certain moral quality (or lack thereof), and quite another to support the claim that all or most of the members of that group do in fact share that moral quality (or the lack thereof). The latter sort of argument raises problems of anecdotal evidence, but even the former raises all sorts of questions about the observational capacities of the speaker and even their level of self-awareness. (Someone who thinks all the folks they’ve met from another political party or religious affiliation are jerks may well be discounting the impact of their own provocations in those encounters.) The argument from biography skates right past all of these problems, asking others to simply accept the testimony and conclusions of the speaker on the basis of his own her own personal experiences.

Interactional Eclipse: The particular frustration of the argument from biography lies in the way that it bundles the problems of anecdotal evidence (in most cases) in with those of problematic authority. One of the consequences of this kind of argument is that it tends to create an odd dilemma for those listening to the speaker. They can either accept the authority of the speaker without comment or they are forced to engage in some level of personal criticism (even if that is simply to suggest that others might have had different experiences). In effect, the argument from biography challenges those who disagree to interrogate the credibility of the speaker. Depending on the context, this can get very ugly very fast, and if the speaker has a friendly audience, the results can be very intimidating. The argument from biography can thus be more effective in silencing critics than answering them.

A Date With Human Resources?

Introduction: This is a pretty unremarkable exchange occurring on TikTok. On 4/30/2021, thatyogagirl posted a video sharing about a conversation with her mother about wearing a shirt with the word “Lesbian” on it. The argument listed below comes from JohnRosen877, one of many people to comment on her video.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: The argument we are interested in here is the one John Rosen offers in support of his claim that he faces discrimination. Additional comments have been provided for context.

JR: “But we don’t wear shirts that say straight.”

Syd: “That’s because you’ve never faced discrimination for being straight…. You should be grateful.”

JR: “I face discrimination when I try to date a lesbian.”

Syd: “Discrimination is not the same as being rejected by a girl.”

JR: “Sure it is if they don’t even consider me because I am male. It’s gender discrimination.”


Comments: This is probably a good example of the kind of reasoning used by internet trolls. The other makes a point, but that point is shaped by little other than the desire to achieve a short term victory over the target of criticism.

Statements: For purposes of this post, I am focusing on the claim that JR faces discrimination. That claim is of course made in direct response to the claim that discrimination is the key to gay and lesbian pride statements (such as the shirt in question), but we’ll limit our consideration here to the claims that JR himself faces discrimination. I had to rewrite the antecedent in statement 2. I do think the phrasing below represents the probable intent of the author.

[1] I face discrimination when I try to date a lesbian.

[2] [Rejection by a girl is discrimination,] if they don’t even consider me because I am male.

[3] It’s gender discrimination.

Diagram: Arguably statement 3 just elaborates on the significance of statement 2, but it also serves to underscore the significance of the category of discrimination at stake. Ultimately, I think it’s a linked argument.

2 + 3 ->1

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Dialectics, Equivocation, Schrodinger’s Asshole, Trolling.

Dialectic: I haven’t represented the contributions of others in the diagram, but the initial significance of the argument is framed by the original author of the video (thatyogagirl) and at least one of the other participants in the discussion (Sydjennish). It is furthermore Syd’s explicit denial of the claim that the rejection JR gets amounts to discrimination that prompts the reasoning used in this argument. It is, accordingly, the product of a dialectical process in which his reasoning is shaped by interactions with others.

Equivocation: John’s argument turns on the fallacy of equivocation. It’s an interesting pattern of equivocation that arises frequently in response to non-discriminatory measures in the workplace and legal system. People usually just refer to the principles at stake as proscriptions against ‘discrimination,’ but this is short for ‘prohibited forms of discrimination’ which involves discrimination against others on the basis of protected classes of status (e.g. race, gender, etc.) within a range of contexts in which the public consequences of discrimination outweigh the personal considerations for public policy. JR is able to show that this rejection is about gender, which would normally be a prohibited category of discrimination, but this act of discrimination still takes place (dating) in which the principles of non-discrimination would not normally apply.

Simply put, we don’t expect people to refrain from acts if discrimination in their love life.

While JR is right that a woman choosing not to date men (or even women, for that matter) is in fact a form of discrimination, it is not the sort of discrimination that normally triggers concerns over equity in the political economy. We could certainly apply the word to such decisions, but it would have none of its usual force. Whether or not JR is aware of this distinction is unclear from his comments in this discussion, but it should be sufficient to explain the foolishness of his argument.

Schrodinger’s Asshole: It is not at all clear that JR is serious about any of the points he makes here, raising the possibility that he may be not himself be all that sure whether or not he means it.

Trolling: Given the apparently flippant nature of JR’s argument, there is a strong likelihood that it was chosen for no reason other than to frustrate the author of the video and those who might support her.

Evaluation: The argument fails because it commits the fallacy of discrimination. The form of discrimination supplied in the premises is trivial whereas that to which he is speaking in the conclusion is about genuine mistreatment of gay and lesbian persons in range of social contexts many of which inflict genuine harm.

Final Thoughts: As this is a likely instance of mere trolling, it is tempting to suggest that this is beneath the level of scrutiny I’m applying here, but the significance of ‘discrimination’ is a recurrent theme in trolling responses to a range of social commentary, and some do not know how to answer it. A good deal of social discourse about serious issues contains arguments just like this, so I think it’s worth the time it takes to identify the deceits contained in them.


The fallacy of Division occurs whenever an argument attributes a quality belonging to a whole to one of its parts. If one were, for example, to start with the assumption that China has the largest military in the world based on total active duty personal, and infer from that that any given Chinese soldier must be tall, this would be n example of the fallacy of Division.

The converse of this fallacy is Composition.

Figurative speech sometimes parallels this fallacy insofar as people may refer to something or someone by referencing a part of that person or things (as in referring to a woman by calling her a ‘blonde; or describing the movements of an army in terms of ‘boots on the ground’). Likewise, people sometimes refer to a whole means of a name for one of its parts. (This occurs when citizens of the United States refer to their country as “America,” and of course we often say of people that they are ‘drinking’ when we actually mean to say that they are consuming an alcoholic beverage.) These metanymic references may be distinguished from fallacies such as composition and division in at least two ways.

  1. Figurative speech need not entail a literal confusion of the qualities in question whereas the fallacies in question do.
  2. Both fallacies take the form of an inference from a premise to a conclusion. In the case of division, the premise will be claim (stated or implied) about the qualities of a whole and the conclusion will literally attribute that quality to the part on the basis of its applicability to the whole.


The fallacy of Composition occurs whenever someone attributes a quality belonging to the parts of a thing to the whole thing itself. This can occur when all of the parts share the quality in question, or even when only some of them do (especially, if there is some reason to over-estimate the relevance of the sampled parts).

The example I learned in my freshman logic class began with the assumption that all the parts used in a car were in perfect working order and concluded that the car would also work just fine, thus ignoring the possibility that the parts had been assembled wrong. We could update this example to computers and it would work the same way.

The converse of this fallacy is Division.

Figurative speech sometimes parallels this fallacy insofar as people sometimes refer to something or someone by referencing a part of that person or things (as in referring to a woman by calling her a ‘blonde; or describing the movements of an army in terms of ‘boots on the ground’). Likewise, people sometimes refer to a whole means of a name for one of its parts. (This occurs when citizens of the United States refer to their country as “America,” and of course we often say of people that they are ‘drinking’ when we actually mean to say that they are consuming an alcoholic beverage.) These metanymic references may be distinguished from fallacies such as composition and division in at least two ways.

  1. Figurative speech need not entail a literal confusion of the qualities in question whereas the fallacies in question do.
  2. Both fallacies take the form of an inference from a premise to a conclusion. In the case of composition, the premise will be claim (stated or implied) about the qualities of a part and the conclusion will literally attribute that quality to the whole on the basis of its applicability to the part(s).

Corporate Peoples

Introduction: In August of 2011, then Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney made these comments during a campaign speech. Romney begins this segment by underscoring the need to balance the national budget and ensure that Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are properly funded. He then mentions raising taxes as an option which he does not favor. When an audience member’s suggested that corporations could be taxed, Romney produces the argument we are looking at here. So, the larger context of the discussion is a question about a balanced budget and the prospect of taxing corporations, but the specific point of this argument is the claim that corporations are (in some sense) people.

Key Facts: This conversation takes place in the wake of a controversial Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, 2010. In this decision, SCOTUS affirmed that corporations are persons under U.S. law and held that their free speech rights under the the First Amendment preclude government specific regulations governing contributions to political campaigns. Although the notion that corporations are persons under the law did not originate with Citizens United, this particular application of the principle was sufficiently controversial to draw public attention (and criticism) to the concept. So, Romney’s response to his hecklers effectively evoked the language of the court and steered the conversation squarely into ongoing debate over Citizens United.

Text: The Youtube transcript for this video wasn’t very helpful, so most of this is my own transcription. I have cleaned up the text a bit, omitting an effort to follow up on Romney’s initial point about taxation, and leaving out comments from the audience to which Romney is clearly responding. I did leave some conversational repair in the text.

“Corporations are people, my friend. …Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. So… Where do you think it goes? What? What? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets. Okay. Human beings my friends.”


Comments: As part of the 2012 political campaign, this specific argument is a bit dated. On the other hand, the notion that corporations are people (or persons) is still part of the public landscape, and many still find this notion quite objectionable. Romney’s reasoning is still representative of much of the pro Citizens United approach to the subject.

It is also worth bearing in mind that this argument takes unfolds under less-than-ideal conditions. Romney is responding to hecklers. His hecklers aren’t the worst you could imagine, and his efforts to reason with them are better than many speakers might attempt. Still, this is not the most idea context for a thoughtful conversation about taxation.

Statements: Even this simplified transcript contains a number of things that don’t contribute directly to the argument. Ultimately, the passage provides us with two clear statements on the subject.

[1] Corporations are people.

my friend.

…Of course they are.

[2] Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.


Where do you think it goes?

What? What?

Whose pockets? Whose pockets?

[2] People’s pockets.


[2] Human beings my friends.”

Diagram: This is a simple argument in which a single premise (articulated in whole or in part, several times) is offered in support of a single conclusion.

2 ->1

Discussion: This argument presents the following themes; Ambiguity, Composition, Equivocation, Footing, Misplaced Literalism, Motte and Bailey Doctrines, Principle of Charity, Voicing.

Ambiguity: The conclusion of Romney’s argument can be interpreted in at least 2 different ways; one in which the point is to make a direct statement about the nature of corporations (i.e. to say that they have the characteristics of personhood, at least insofar as U.S. law is concerned), and another in which he is using the language figuratively to remind people that you cannot penalize a corporation (whatever its actual nature) without penalizing people. In the second of the two interpretations, statement 1 could be read more like; “Whatever you do to corporations, you do to people.” We could call these two approaches ‘the relatively literal’ interpretation and the ‘figurative’ interpretation.

There is a second ambiguity in this argument insofar as the reference to corporations as ‘people’ evokes the concept of corporate personhood, but not exactly. It is common to think of ‘people’ as a plural reference to persons, or as a reference to collective groups of persons, but personhood can sometimes be attributed to non-human beings such as other entities, animals, or fictional characters. Simply put, a person need not be a human being whereas the plural reference to people would normally be taken to apply only to a bunch of human beings. This is a distinction not always observed in conversations about Citizens United, but Romney’s failure to say ‘person’ instead of ‘people’complicates the issue a bit. If we take his specific wording to mean literally human beings, then this points us away from the likelihood that he meant to invoke the legal significance of corporate personhood.

Composition: If we assume the argument is meant to consistently advocate a relatively literal approach to corporate personhood, it commits the fallacy of division. The fact that costs incurred by a corporation will impact those people investing in (or otherwise doing business with) a corporation doesn’t mean that the corporation itself is a person, literally or otherwise. Under this interpretation, this argument simply takes an attribute of those who make up and do business with corporations and attributes it to the corporations themselves.

Equivocation: Another way of thinking about this argument would be to think of Romney as actually shifting his own interpretation of his main point between his premise and his conclusion. In the conclusion, he is attributing the trait of personhood to corporations whereas in his premise Romney is merely suggesting that corporations impact the welfare of people. The meaning of ‘people’ itself might be said to shift between Romney’s premise and his conclusion. Of course, if this is the case, then Romney’s argument simply commits the fallacy of equivocation, so this rather complex way of interpreting the argument doesn’t really improve on one treating it as consistently advocating a relatively literal interpretation of corporate personhood.

There is a second equivocation nested into the first, and has to do with who Romney is talking about when he talks about ‘people.’ His own language evokes a seemingly egalitarian sense of the impact that corporate taxation has on people in general, but this raises questions about how corporate profits are distributed between investors and CEOs, or reinvested in the business, or even magnified or diminished through fluctuations in the stock market. There are lots of twists and turns in the business world that can channel profits away from some or all of the people who might be involved in a corporation. By simply treating corporations as people, even figuratively, Romney avoids any need to account for these possibilities, offering up instead a sense that what we do to corporations ultimately impacts people. In effect, he invites us to imagine corporate profits will go to the average American, knowing full well that quite often this is simply not the case.

Footing: It is interesting to note that Romney repeatedly refers to his audience, and even his hecklers, as ‘friends,’ This suggests a conscious effort to emphasize solidarity with them. This works in concert with his efforts to suggest that corporate profits lead to ‘people’ in general. What Romney uses strategic ambiguity to suggest in his argument is thus echoed in his efforts to cast the conversation as one occurring between friends. he is thus minimizing real differences and real conflicts within the American political economy both in his explicit argument and in his contextualization of that argument.

Misplaced Literalism: If Romney language was meant figuratively, then the relatively literal interpretation of his argument would be a mistake. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear from his actual statements which approach he has in mind, and his choice to assert that ‘corporations are people’ is conspicuous in the context of life just after Citizens United. It doesn’t match the language of the decision precisely, but neither does it fall into any more common patterns for talking about the issue, so it seems reasonable to suspect that he meant to evoke the principles announced in that decision. I do not see a clear basis for settling this question.

Motte and Bailey Doctrines: This might actually be a good example of a motte and bailey doctrine in action. Insofar as the relatively literal interpretation of Romney’s conclusion would make it an expression of corporate personhood as the Supreme Court currently applies the concept. This concept then provides a kind of short-hand in which the actual rights persons are applied to corporations as a matter of doctrine (the bailey), even as those seeking to explain this principle may frequently do so by reminding us that real people will be impacted by anything that effects a corporation (the motte). In effect, a common sense reminder about the real world impact that corporations have on people serves to provide an apparently sound defense for a range of ideas about how corporations may exercise the rights of a person in ways that may actually hurt actual human beings.

Principle of Charity: The relatively literal interpretation of Romney’s argument likely commits the fallacy of Composition (see above). Alternatively, the figurative interpretation is less clearly fallacious, but it does leave unanswered a lot of questions about the real impact that taxes on corporations will have on people. Romney may have answers for these questions, but they do not come out in this argument (the notion that corporations are people enables him to skip these questions). Barring sound reason to think Romney intends his conclusion to be interpreted in the relatively literal sense, the principle of charity would point to the second interpretation of the argument as the best way to go.

Voicing: Insofar as Romney asserts that corporations are people, his language evokes the court’s ruling in Citizens United (along with a range of related case law). In effect, he is giving voice to Supreme Court’s views on this subject by evoking their language (or something close to it) in his own campaign. This also means, Romney’s hecklers (and other critics) are effectively fighting back against the Supreme Court when they criticize Romney over this statement. So, the U.S Supreme Court acquires a presence in the immediate context of this speech (and in turn, within the 2012 Presidential campaign) through the voice of Romney.

Evaluation: At the end of the day, I do think the best way to approach this would be to apply the principle of charity to Romney’s argument, treat it as a figurative way of reminding us what happens to corporations affects people and evaluate the argument on that basis. That said…

Statement 2: This statement is true, but only in the most trivial sense of the word. Romney may wish us to think of corporate earnings as going to people in general (or specifically to those investing in, working for, or working with corporations), but this does not always happen (as a former corporate raider like Romney would know very well). We might say that the earnings will ultimately go to some persons, but we have little reason to believe they will be distributed equitably to ‘people’ in some general sense. This makes the abstract recipient of earnings (‘people’) that Romney references more than a little suspect.

Inference from 2 to 1: This inference is weak at best. Even using a highly figurative approach to Romney’s conclusion, he is avoiding all sorts of questions about how different policies impact people with different roles in the economy. the fact of the matter is corporate prosperity does not necessarily lead to prosperity for the general public, or even for the majority of those involved in a given corporation. What happens to corporations does not translate directly into real world impact on actual people. Any such impact is filtered through a range of legal and political arrangements which commonly turn good news into bad for selected parties and visa versa.

Hell, raising corporate taxes might even be a bad idea, as Romney clearly believes, but this argument does not help us to understand that.

The argument is unsound because the reasons given provide little support for the conclusion.

Final thoughts: I suppose in the end the biggest problem with this entire discussion lies in the mythic language in which it takes place. Whether we are to take that language literally or figuratively, it does nothing to help us understand the real world impact of corporate taxation or any other economic policies. We could imagine thoughtful discussion of the pros and cons of shifting more of the tax burden to corporations. That conversation simply did not take place at this event.

Motte and Bailey Doctrines, Volume II

I rambled on at length about motte and bailey doctrines in a previous post. Suffice to say that this tool of critical thinking is more than a little problematic. That said, like a lot of fallacy labels and comparable forms of critical, the label of a ‘motte and bailey doctrine’ has a lot of intuitive appeal. Properly used, it might even help us identify erroneous reasoning and communicate something about the errors in question.

The question is, how best to use this criticism in practice?

I’d say that you start by asking these questions:

  1. What is the motte? Note that most discussions of this subject seem to assume that the motte variation of a given position is true (even a ‘trolls truism’ to use Shackel’s language), but I’m not sure that this need always be the case. It seems to me that it would suffice to find a variation in a position that is relatively easy to support and hence likely to be accepted as true. One could always hold out the possibility that the motte is also wrong in the end.
  2. What is bailey? Here, I do think it an essential feature of the bailey that it should be demonstrably false, or at least highly repugnant to one side of a given debate.
  3. What is the difference between them? (Note that if that difference matters, one should be able to show that the motte does not actually entail the bailey. It’s only a motte and bailey doctrine if the shift between them is capricious. If, on the other hand, the bailey is logically entailed by the motte, you may have the beginnings of a reductio ad absurdum, using the bailey as the grounds for deducing an absurd conclusion from stronger position.)
  4. Are you facing a genuinely capricious shift between the motte and the bailey? It’s not enough to be aware of different variations of the same position. What makes these doctrines a problem is the duplicitous shift from one to the other at the convenience of the doctrines proponent(s). This can occur because an individual is making the shift herself, either during the course of a specific argument or from one context to another. It can also occur because there is something about the social context of public debate that generates relatively consistent differences between the version of a given position produced for some conversations and those produced for others. The point here is that a genuine motte and bailey doctrine does merely present someone with variations in the position in question; it presents those variations in such a manner as to create an unfair burden for potential critics.
  5. Can you refute the bailey? Can you actually show that the bailey is wrong? If you can’t, then noting the shift between motte and bailey isn’t really going to get you anywhere.
  6. Are you missing anything? As with any fallacy accusation, it’ always worth considering whether or not there is something about the context of the issue at hand that makes reasoning that would normally be erroneous relevant after all. There is no formula for this, but many of the the standard fallacies come with variations that are actually reasonable arguments. (Alternatively, they parallel reasonable arguments which could easily be mistaken for their fallacious variants.) The notion of a motte and bailey doctrine is no exception to this problem.
  7. Are there better ways of pointing out the problem? For example, the problem of a motte and bailey doctrine could be addressed by leveling the accusation that its proponent(s) are engaging in equivocation or amphibology. If saying this will give you a cleaner counter-argument, then that may be the way to go. If that is not the case, or if you really want to underscore the strategic manipulation, then perhaps it’s best to deploy the accusation that someone is advocating a motte and bailey doctrine.

If after answering all these questions, you think you are in a position to address a position by calling it out as a motte and bailey doctrine, then go for it! Your answers to questions 1-5 should probably find their way somewhere into your account of the issue. Questions 6 and 7 have been effectively answered in your decision to make the criticism in the first place.

When “They” is One or Two or Maybe Legion

Introduction: This argument can be found on a Youtube presentation by James Lindsay entitled, “Stealing the Motte: Critical Social Justice and the Principle of Charity.” It is one of many arguments he directs against what he calls “critical social justice theory.” It is part of a larger series of audio-clips published under the title of “New Discourses.” This is the parent-site for the publication.

Key Facts: I believe Lindsay is referring to the this paper, published in Hipatia Press. It’s title doesn’t entirely match his own description, but it’s close enough that I do believe this is the one he has in mind.

Text: This is a small portion of text taken from the transcript provided by Youtube. He goes on to elaborate on the details of the article and on his own reasons for referring to social justice as a virus.

I want to focus on the claim that social justice critics refer to their own movement as a virus, treating that as the conclusion of his argument for purposes of this argument.

“I’ve both written and 16:50 spoken in fact about how critical social 16:53 justice is like a virus on our liberal 16:55 societies and I have to do that again 16:56 here because it’s just the best metaphor 17:00 for understanding it but before 17:02 reminding you of that I have to remind 17:06 you also that I’m not characterizing 17:08 them as viruses I’m not making a case 17:11 about them that they don’t make about 17:13 themselves they call themselves viruses 17:16 as well and compare the theory to it 17:19 anyway in activism and so I’m not in any 17:22 way trying to untie him unfairly here as 17:25 I’ve noted before in 2016 to feminist 17:29 scholars Bram foz and Michael Carter 17:31 published an academic paper in a 17:32 relatively small academic journal and it 17:35 carried the title women’s studies as a 17:36 virus institutional feminism effect in 17:39 the projection of danger in that paper 17:42 Falls and Carter make the point that 17:44 women’s studies should see itself 17:45 through the metaphor of the virus 17:49 comparing the discipline if you will in 17:51 favorable terms to other plagues like 17:54 Ebola and HIV and unless you think I 17:57 exaggerate I can quote 17:58 them on this…”


Comments: Yes, I found it while reading up on Motte and Bailey doctrines.

Statements: Using the claim critical social justice activists refer to themselves as the conclusion of the argument means we leave a lot of this passage out of the argument (hence the unnumbered statements below). Were we to address the accuracy of Lindsay’s treatment of the article in question, we would need to add a great deal more to the analysis. What I have included here is sufficient to address the relevance of this one article to Lindsay’s generalizations about social justice activism.

I also cleaned up a few things the transcript appears to have gotten wrong. In any event, I believe the argument is as follows.


I’ve both written and spoken in fact about how critical social justice is like a virus on our liberal societies and I have to do that again here because it’s just the best metaphor for understanding it but before reminding you of that I have to remind you also that I’m not characterizing them as viruses I’m not making a case about them that they don’t make about themselves.

[1] they call themselves viruses as well and compare the theory to it anyway in (or possibly ‘and’) activism

and so I’m not in any way trying to characterize them unfairly here. as I’ve noted before

[2] in 2016 two feminist scholars Breanne Fahs and Michael Karger published an academic paper in a relatively small academic journal.


[3] it carried the title “Women’s Studies as a Virus; Institutional Feminism, affect, and the Projection of Danger”

[4] In that paper Fahs and Carter make the point that women’s studies should see itself through the metaphor of the virus,comparing the discipline if you will in favorable terms to other plagues like Ebola and HIV…”

Diagram: If statement 2 here draws our attention to an article in which two feminists refer to women’s studies as a virus, statements 3 and 4 elaborate on the significance of the paper. These combine together to form the claim that social justice theorists refer to themselves and their own movement as a virus (statement 1). This is then taken as evidence that Lindsay is not characterizing social justice advocates unfairly when he himself describes their movement as a virus, but that is a part of the larger argument which I do not purport to analyze here.

2+3+4 -> 1

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes: Ad Hominem, Anaphora, Anecdotal Reasoning, Authority, Cherry Picking, Hasty Generalization, Poisoning the Well, Principle of Charity.

Ad Hominem: Whatever the reasons Fahs and Karger have for describing feminism as a virus, Lindsay’s own goal is convince his audience that anyone associated with critical social justice theory is a terrible person engaged in terrible things. It is a sustained attack on a broad range of scholarship. Lindsay does not make an effort to show that social justice critics are wrong, so much as that they are dangerous and positively evil. To suggest that his approach to the subject constitutes an ad hominem-circumstantial is putting it mildly.

Anaphora: One of the distinctive features of this presentation is the undisciplined use of anaphoric reference. Lindsay’s use of ‘they’ and ‘them’ throughout the audio enables him to skip a lot of interesting questions about why he is really talking about at any given time. In this passage, the shift from two specific authors publishing a single paper in a “relatively small academic journal” to the claim that social justice theorists as a whole characterize their work as a virus leans rather heavily on Lindsays use of ‘they’ and ‘them.’ In this case, the shift from his evidence to his conclusion entails a jump from feminism to critical social justice theory and a jump from a sample of two to the whole of critical theory. Using this language enables Lindsay to presuppose the relevance of his evidence to his conclusion without stating its terms explicitly.

Anecdotal Reasoning: Insofar as Lindsay is providing a story about a single paper in support of a sweeping generalization about a broad range of scholarship, this constitutes a good example of anecdotal reasoning.

Authority: One of the more charitable ways of interpreting this argument would be to treat it as an authority-based argument. I say it’s charitable, because the alternative is to suggest that a same of two authors is sufficient to speak for the entirely of scholars identifying themselves as critical theorists, which invites the Hasty Generalization comments below. If on the other hand, Lindsay wishes to suggest that Fahs and Karger have authority to speak on a nature of this trend because they are part of it, that is at least a little more interesting. Still, there is little reason to believe these two scholars have the authority to define the entirety of social justice scholarship. Even their own article falls well short of such a claim, being focused on women’s studies.

Cherry Picking: The selection of a single article employing language comparable to Lindsay’s own smacks of cherry picking.

Hasty Generalization: A sample of one article and two feminists simply is not enough evidence to demonstrate, as Lindsay claims that this is how critical social justice advocates describe themselves. Its not even close.

Interactional Eclipse: One big problem with describing any human beings or movement of human beings in terms of a virus is that any descriptive value this account might have is likely to be overshadowed by the pejorative implications. Fahs and Karger may have been happy to use an exciting narrative for feminism, but for his own part, Lindsay is even happier to use a metaphor that effectively dehumanizes Fahs and Karger, and if he has his way, everyone associated with social justice or critical theory. In effect, the insult here is is the point. The argument, for Linday, at any rate, is little more than a pretext for that insult.

Poisoning the Well: This entire Youtube presentation is an effort to convince Lindsay’s audience that social justice critics are out to destroy liberal society, and hence, they are unworthy of the principle of charity. To say that this is an exercise in poisoning the well is also putting it mildly.

Principle of Charity: I can think of two ways to interpret the use of a single article by two scholars within one sub-field associated with social justice to characterize all of the social justice movement. One way is to think of it as a representative sample, and the other is to think of it as an authority-based argument. Either way, the argument fails.

Evaluation: The argument fails because this one article simply isn’t sufficient to warrant a generalization about social justice critics as a whole.

Final Thoughts: This is of course part of a much larger argument. Independent of his claim that social justice theorists characterize themselves as a virus, Lindsay does offer his own reasons for thinking of critical social justice theory as a virus. Whether or not these are worthy of consideration is another question.

There is another angle here insofar we could try to unpack Lindsay’s phrasing. The term “critical social justice activism” fuses together quite a few different things. I don’t think he is wrong in suspecting that these things are related, but the effort to just fuse them all into one term is a little disconcerting, particularly when it is couple with clear efforts to poison the well for anyone associated with this amalgam. Whether or not Lindsay’s work is worth the effort is also another question.

Motte and Bailey Doctrines

What is a Motte and Bailey doctrine?

Well, we get the concept from the Philosopher Nicholas Shackel who used it to criticize postmodernist philosophy. As he first used it in publication back in 2005, this is a relatively new concept, but others have expanded on it and popularized the term in recent years.

At any rate, Let’s give Shackel the first word on the topic:

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.

– Nicholas Shackel “The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology,” page 3.

It seems that a Motte and Bailey consists of a position which comes in roughly two forms; one (the motte) which is apparently true and highly defensible but essentially unremarkable and largely useless at face value, and another (the bailey) which is more exciting but also more dubious. These two variations within a given position enable its proponents to move back and forth between its stronger and weaker versions at will. They typically advocate the motte in contexts where credible criticism is likely but indulge in the bailey when they are on a roll, and in particular is they can expect a friendly audience or readership. In effect, people can be expected to defend the motte but live in the bailey.

That’s the concept, as I understand it, in a nutshell.


Motte and Bailey as a Fallacy: One variation of this criticism treats it as a fallacy. This is the approach taken by Christopher Anadale., Associate Professor of Philosophy at Mt, St. Mary’s University. The “Motte and Bailey fallacy” is also the label you will find in the current version of Wikipedia.

For his part, Shackel rejects the label of a fallacy, suggesting that the term ‘fallacy’ is best applied to arguments whereas the problem of shifting between a motte and a bailey is in fact one that applies to a larger agenda which can produce myriad individual arguments. these may themselves be fallacious or not, depending on the details, but the motte and bailey problem occurs within a larger unit of contested discourse. He prefers to think of this as a kind of doctrine.

…and something tells me ‘discourse’ might not be Shackels favorite word to use here, but it’s my paraphrase and I’m sticking with it.

Note that Shackel also rejects the notion that the motte and bailey problem is just a function of strategic equivocation insofar as that would apply only to shifts in the meaning of a single word whereas he applies this concept to a body of propositions rather than a single proposition or argument. Hence, his consistent preference for the term “motte and bailey doctrine.”

Note that Shackel’s insistence that the motte and bailey problem is larger than a single argument creates some of the problems listed below (namely the invitation to direct the criticism at the patterns of collective movements rather than specific authors or specific texts). One could just as easily say of a motte and bailey doctrine that it manifests itself as a problem precisely when the result of equivocation (or perhaps amphibology) appear in the arguments of a specific party. Applying the notion to a general movement leaves those making the accusation too much room to shift around in their own right.


Principle of Charity: One of the more interesting themes associated with the Motte and Bailey Doctrine has to do with its relationship to the principle of charity.

Suffice to say that relationship is a bit hostile.

The principle of charity, of course, entails the notion that when interpreting someone’s position, we ought to adopt the interpretation which construes their position in the strongest terms consistent with their own stated views on the subject. As the notion of a Motte and Bailey doctrine explicitly addresses the prospect of multiple versions of a given position, it necessarily raises questions about how to weigh those versions relative to one another. The prospect that one is facing a motte and bailey tactic suggests a very different way of handling this question.

When a given position has been identified as a motte and bailey doctrine, this creates a story in which the less defensible versions of the position serve as the true intent of the position while the more defensible versions become a convenient means of dodging the problems of the former. In the face of such a narrative, it makes no sense to focus on the stronger versions of a position. That would be merely playing into the hands of motte and bailey stratagem. It makes more sense to focus criticism on the bailey, and dismiss the motte as a diversion tactic used only to deceive us. In effect, recourse to the accusation that someone has produced a motte and bailey doctrine provides a very convenient excuse to set aside the principle of charity.

If the principle of charity suggests we should favor a charitable interpretation of another person’s position, the prospect that they may be advancing a motte and bailey doctrine suggests that we should assume the worst. Don’t let the bastards retreat to the motte! Keep them in the bailey and kicked their asses!

Dammit anyhow!

Details matter of course, and one way to resolve this problem might be to pay very careful attention to the rhetorical strategies of any given source to see if they really are moving back and forth between a motte and a bailey. If they aren’t we apply the principle of charity; if they are, then we, nail them in the bailey.

One problem with that solution is that it ignores the rhetorical force of the motte and bailey narrative as it is currently developing in the culture of net-logics and popular media representations. Whereas Shackel’s own critique of postmodernism includes direct commentary on specific texts by specific authors, many of those using the concept at this point are making up the mottes and baileys which they attribute to intellectual movements at their own convenience. Although logicians have long used made-up examples to illustrate informal fallacies, this practice is constrained at least by the notion that a fallacy normally occurs in a single argument or text. As the problem of a motte and bailey doctrine is explicitly one of larger set of ideas, this invites use of more abstract models when constructing a motte and bailey doctrine for the benefit of an audience or readership. It invites people to draw from a broad range of views when imagining the possibilities, taking inspiration for the motte from one source and that of the bailey from another. Different people (some of whom may be perfectly consistent in their own terms) get smashed together with others whose views are nominally in their own camp to create an imaginary position taken by no-one in particular but easily used as an object lesson on the evils of anyone whose views might sound like theirs. Thus, misplaced concretism combines with motte and bailey narratives to generate a range of stock arguments decimating what are in effect straw man positions, and because the motte and bailey doctrine is NOT contained within a single argument, it if far more difficult to show someone that the refuted position is in fact a straw man. Moreover, the possibility that someone might be advocating a motte and bailey doctrine argues against application of the principle of charity.

The end result is an assumption of guilt with little to stand in its way.

Case in point? In a video entitled “Stealing the Motte: Critical Social Justice and the Principle of Charity,” James Lindsay argues that critical social justice theorists are not entitled to the principle of charity because they do not extend it to others. In a very long-winded diatribe, Lindsey does his best to suggest that the worst possible implications of any give social justice concept are in fact the real point of social justice politics. Lindsey warns his viewers against application of the principle of charity to critical theories advancing social justice, stating repeatedly that in doing so, one builds their motte for them. In the end, he advocates both granting and denying the principle of charity to its advocates, but the former is little more than a palliative rejoinder; the substance of his entire video is the claim that one really cannot afford to extend the principle of justice to critical theorists. They must be bombed in the bailey so to speak, thus mixing his metaphors a bit, but anyway…

On a more substantive note: Harris Randy accused Shackel himself of violating the principle of charity in his critique of post-modernism. I won’t recount the argument here, but I will say that the entire discussion is an improvement over the use of the motte and bailey narrative to castigate a broad range of views. Shackel targets specific thinkers and engages in textual analysis to show that those individuals have themselves shifted back and forth between a motte and a bailey. Whether or not he his critique is sound is another question. Randy clearly does not believe it is, but in any event, this discussion has a lot more substance to it than the many sloppy applications of this concept to the cullture wars of the modern era.


Speaking of Culture Wars…


Right Wing Politics: The more I look at this concept, the more I am struck by the consistently partisan bent of those using it as a criticism. The overwhelming majority of its uses do seem to be coming from moderate conservatives to far right thinkers targeting aspects of left wing politics. Every now and then, we’ll see a counter-example. Even these right wing sources will throw us a bone with the occasional criticism of their own camp, but that might be seen as paying the price of legitimizing their own critical weapon. Suffice to say, most of the prominent sources using motte and bailey doctrines have been directing it against left wing politics.

The actual politics of postmodernism is (unsurprisingly) complex and difficult to pin down, but I do think it’s fair to suggest its proponents are normally thought of as falling on the left side of the political spectrum, So Shackel’s own contribution seems to start things down that path. Christopher Anadale‘s video treating this as a fallacy also focuses on conservative Christian conflicts with left wing political views. (Indeed, the idea of reforming church teachings on the subject of homosexuality would seem to be his prime example of a motte and bailey doctrine). In fact, Anadale is very clearly presenting the entire topic from the standpoint of arguing a conservative Catholic position in a range of subjects. Two articles (“Social Justice And Words, Words, Words” and “All In All, Another Brick In The Motte“) written in the Slate Star Codex helped to popularize the notion of motte and bailey doctrines, both of which focused on the use of the concept to explain shifts in the meaning of social justice politics. I’m not entirely sure of the politics behind this blog, but in this case at least, the author is expressing concerns about left wing politics. In July of 2020, right wing news aggregate, Real Clear Investigations, published an article by John Murawski, entitled “The ‘Motte & Bailey’: Political Jousting’s Deceptive New Medieval Weapon,” the main substance of which is a story about the increasing use of motte and bailey tactics in social justice tactics. And then, of course, there is the James Lindsay video, already mentioned. Lindsay himself, is a dedicated opponent of social justice advocacy, and of critical social justice theory. His pranks on lefty academic publications are legend! So, it should be no surprise that he would employ this concept as an attack against his favorite targets.

Hell, I even used this concept myself to critique the notion of white privilege, so I guess I can’t claim to be an exception to the pattern. I mean, I don’t think of myself as a conservative, far from it, but thus far, my only serious effort to use the concept parallels the larger trend of conservative thinking on this subject.

Well, damn!

It is by no means obvious that the notion of a motte and bailey doctrine cuts only one direction; it is perfectly capable of deployment against conservative and far right views. Most recently, it’s tempting to suggest that Trump supporters have reproduced the pattern when it comes to the 2020 election. In the case the bailey would be the notion that the election was stolen, Trump is still the legitimate President and Biden is just a pretender whereas the motte would be healthy concern for the integrity of our electoral system. (…we just want to ensure the ecltion is fair. Shouldn’t you be concerned about that too?) At least that’s my favorite candidate for a right wing motte and bailey.

This suggestion too would be subject to the concerns about abstract objects of criticism mentioned above. I am sure some Trump supporters stay in the motte and some stay in the bailey, but we only really have a problem if they slip conveniently back and forth between these two positions. I may have a sense that they do, but no, I haven’t gone through a list of right wing pundits and politicians to see if I can pin down just how many of them really meet the criteria necessary to justify this accusation. So, my own suggestion too shouldn’t be treated as anything more than that; it is a concern about a possible application of this criticism to right wing politics.

Can I advance that accusation with confidence?


In any event, the possibility exists that we could apply the notion of a motte and bailey doctrine to a broad range of intellectual positions, including those of moderate conservatives and far right political sources. the fact remains, though that this critical tool has thus far been useful mainly in criticism of left wing targets. This could reflect a bias in the tool of criticism, an artifact of its diffusion through the public domain, a serious problem with left wing politics, or an unresolved feature of the problems left wing politics aims to address. Hell, I’m sure it could be a few other things as well. The fact remains that this seemingly neutral critical theme has been, to date, used primarily against left wing targets. Why that is, remains something of an open question.


Normalizing a Novel Criticism: As an aside; this whole story seems to present us with an interesting case study in the emergence of a putatively neutral or neutralish instrument of critical thinking. The notion of a motte and bailey doctrine begins with a distinctively polemic attack on a broad range of philosophical positions, and it has been applied ever more consistently to political movements loosely associated with those positions. We could easily see this as just another narrative device used to cast left wing politics in a negative light, and yet the potential to see this a a general tool of criticism does exist. Right-leaning critics are thus faced with an odd dilemma; they want to use this club to beat the left, but the club becomes more powerful if they spread the notion that this weapon can be used against just about anybody, even them. Watching them put out the occasional criticism directed at their own camp thus becomes an interesting study in political priorities.

Who goes under the bus to help power-up the weapon?


Lets Extend that Metaphor!: It’s worth noting that the problem with mottes and baileys as those using this concept normally apply it is consistently one of people using the motte to avoid hard questions about the bailey. It is a concern about people who use a strong (and likely true) position to evade questions about a weak (and likely false) position. We hear complaints about those who defend the motte and then come out after the battle to live in the bailey. What we don’t hear about is the reverse. We don’t hear about those who loot the bailey, never touch the motte, and go home claiming victory.

My point here is that shifts in meaning can be manipulated from the other direction too. People can and do attack the sloppy versions of a position without touching its most substantive versions, then proclaim themselves the victor. (I believe this is often called “Weak-manning” the issue. It is distinct from the fallacy of a straw man insofar as a straw man is fake position made up by the critic for the sole purpose of undermining a stronger position actually taken by a real person. In the case of weak-manning, there are people who actually advocate the target of the criticism, but their are stronger, smarter arguments out there and the critic knows it.

Weak-manning is little other than the flip-side of the motte and bailey doctrine.

We could just as easily call it plundering the bailey.


Ad Homineming the Motte: There is yet another concern about the use of this criticism. Accusing someone of employing a motte and bailey doctrine comes close to an ad hominem-circumstantial, particularly if one uses it to avoid showing exactly how the bailey-version of a position is wrong. Once again, Shackel put forward specific arguments in an effort to show that the bailey of postmodernism is wrong. Those following in his footsteps often fail to do so, relying instead on the their chosen audience to dismiss views they regard as unworthy of consideration. In many of the examples now flourishing all across the net, it is sufficient to name the objectionable position knowing full well that one is preaching to the choir, so to speak, and they will regard the matter as settled to begin with. The end result is a story about the other person’s bias, one which assumes the error of his ways rather than demonstrating it as constructive criticism ought to do.


News Media: One area in which I think it’s fair to suggest that motte and bailey doctrines are produced on a regular basis would be in the news media. Time and again, one encounters stories under the label of an inflammatory (and often inaccurate) title. The actual article may in fact include more factual information more reasonably argued, but its title has been spun up to get the attention of an audience or a reader. In effect, the title of a news story is the bailey, whereas the body of the story itself (or at least some of its middle passages) would serve as the motte.

One example of this would be the Real Clear Investigations article mentioned above; its title suggests the phenomenon of a motte and bailey doctrine is a new weapon whereas article itself explicitly states that the pattern of argumentation is not new, but that it is becoming more common as a result of social media. In effect, the title amounts to a wildly inaccurate claim whereas the article itself contains a more reasonable version of the story.

It should also be said that dedicated partisan news sources will of course exaggerate this pattern still more than others. If you are reading Breitbart News on the right or the Palmer Report on the left, you are likely to see a wildly partisan headline over an article that contains something a little more reasonable. Of course another layer of shifting positions typically underlies this wherein a partisan publication will take a news item from the Associated Press, spin that into a partisan account of its significance. This partisan account is then spun-up once again to come up with the inflammatory headline. The end result is often a title that is wildly inconsistent with the substance of the original news story.

I suppose it’s kind of fitting that the bailey would be found in the middle of such articles.

What makes this pattern particularly egregious is the fact that so many people share links to news stories based on their feelings about the titles. Sometimes folks don’t even read the article before sharing, or they read only a few paragraphs into it, never making it to the brass-tacks account buried in the middle of the story.


Semantics All the Way Down: One interesting feature of Shackel’s approach to this would be the role of definitions in his initial argument. He bases a lot of his criticism of postmodernism on the notion that various postmodern thinkers have arbitrarily redefined key terms such as ‘truth’ to mean something else; in this case; ‘power.’ Shackel thus accuses them of Humpty-Dumptying the words in question. This is interesting for a couple of reasons:

As the problem of the Motte and Bailey doctrine is explicitly a question about shifts in meaning, this creates an iconic relationship between the problem he is talking about and the specific evidence he first uses to make his case. (I’m not even sure what to make of this; I just find it interesting.)

On a more problematic note; definitions are notoriously arbitrary to begin with. One needn’t embrace radical subjectivism or even a pragmatic definition of truth to suggest that words can be redefined for a number of reasons. Shackel’s writing seems to suggest that there is some underlying objective reality that is denied in this practice of redefining the meaning of words, but no such reality exists and one needn’t be a post-modernist to see it that way.

…unless I have under-estimated the posty bona fides of Ferdinand de Saussure.

One way of thinking about the problem of rationality is to frame it as a question of whether or not it is possible to get an objective or rational account of the world around us while starting with a semiotic system in which the significance of any given thing is arbitrary? I’ve certainly met people who think the answer is ‘yes,’ just as I’ve met people who think the answer is ‘no,’ but if Shackel means to separate the rationalist from the irrationalist, semantics would seem to be an ill-suited ground for doing so.

Might as well build your bailey in a swamp!

There is at least one other way to support Shackel’s critique of post-modernism and that would be to suggest that the redefinition accomplished by folks such as Foucault is never really complete. It isn’t even intended to be so. If Foucault defines ‘truth’ as power, his subsequent usage is at best agonistic, gaining much of its significance from a tension with more common definitions. His approach becomes absurd in Shackel’s treatment precisely because Shackel takes him quite literally whereas it has always seemed to me that Foucault wants us to retain a little of the more common sense of the term. It’s an equivocal approach to be sure, but the problem is not entirely a function of strategic manipulation.

In effect, this version of Shackel’s critique would amount to the claim, not that there is something objectively wrong with redefining words like ‘truth,’ but that the methodologies in question really don’t really do that all, opting instead to introduce an ironic significance into their use of language, thus splitting the significance of their words into a indefinite variety of possible implications. From this point of view, the motte and bailey problem would be just one of many possible shifts in meaning stemming from post-modern approaches to rhetoric.

This would give Shackel a workable angle against postmodernism without committing him to naive realism and a rather impoverished sense of semiotics.


Mixed Metaphors: It’s worth noting that those talking about motte and bailey doctrines typically use the terms ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ in a manner someone different from other uses of the contrast. In motte and bailey talk, a strong position is one that is likely to be regarded as true, and in most cases, this means a bland and uninteresting statement, one that doesn’t risk being wrong. In contrast, the weak statements in motte and bailey narratives are those that can easily be shown to be false, which usually means that these are the claims that appear more controversial. This flies directly in the face of other conventions wherein the stronger claim is taken to be the one that risks more, claims more, and gives us more to think about. Think about ‘weak’ versus ‘strong’ atheism or ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ agnosticism. Another example might be the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ or any number of instances in which people have to distinguish between a bold claim that actually invites people to shift their understanding of a topic and a more bland claim that could be called a ‘trolls truism’ in Shackel’s treatment. What Shackel calls ‘strong’ others might call weak and visa versa.

This is a trivial problem, but it’s worth noting that what counts as strong and what counts as weak in the motte and bailey problematique is just the opposite of the conventions used in vocabulary often used to make very similar distinctions.


Last Stand at Landover: The spirit of Nathan Poe haunts this approach to the topic right here, though it appears that Shackel missed it (or chose not to acknowledge it). Of course only a damned Heathen would mention this at all, and I shall surely burn in Hell for doing so.

Damn me anyhow!

Dinesh Does What He Does

Introduction: On the 6th of May, Dinesh D’Souza posted this on twitter.

Key Facts: On January 6th, 2021 Congress met for the purpose of verifying the certified votes of the 2021 Presidential election. Joe Biden had received the majority of certified votes, making him the presumed President elect, though Donald Trump had challenged the election in a number of court cases as well a variety of popular fora. He consistently lost the court challenges before election officials and courts, but successfully developed a significant following of his own base unwilling to accept the legitimacy of the election.

On January 6th, Congressmen from several states challenged the legitimacy of votes reported from their own states Outside, as they were expected to do, thus triggering a debate within Congress. Donald Trump spoke to a rally of his own supporters which he had encouraged to come to Washington DC on the day in question. Following his own speech, Trump supporters stormed the Congressional buildings and shut down Congress. five people were killed and process of confirming the votes was delayed for a time. This is a rather dry description of events, but it must be stressed that the riots included a number of disturbing events, and the rhetoric of Trump and his supporters leading up to the event contained many elements suggesting violence intent all along. Some have suggested that this riot would be better described as an insurrection, an attempted coup, or even domestic terrorism. At least some of the participants do appear to have come prepared to engage in acts which would normally be described as domestic terrorism. In the wake of all this, many have argued that Trump incited the riot himself, and that this is grounds for impeachment.

Dinesh D’Souza is a far right wing political commentator. He plead guilty to a felony charge of making illegal campaign contributions during the 2012 political campaigns. His conviction was pardoned by Donald Trump in 2018.

Text: “Does this look like an insurrection? A riot? A coup attempt? If it doesn’t walk like a duck or talk like a duck then it probably isn’t a duck.”


Comments: Dinesh D’Souza is far more influential than he ought to be, so he merits attention for reasons unrelated to the quality of his thought.

Statements: This argument requires us to rewrite a rehtorical question as 3 different statements (Sttements 1-3) and supply a missing conclusion (statement 5).

[1] [This does not] look like an insurrection.

[2] [This does not look like] A riot.

[3] [This does not look like a] coup attempt.

[4] If it doesn’t walk like a duck or talk like a duck then it probably isn’t a duck.

[5] [The events of January 6th were not an insurrection, a riot, or a coup attempt.]

Diagram: There are a few ways, you could represent this, but the easiest thing to do here I think is just treat statements 1-3 as the minor premise(s) in a mixed hypothetical argument and 4 as supplying the major premise. We could translate the ‘duck’ metaphor into the language specific to this event, which would create an extra step or two in the reasoning, but that seems unnecessary. This argument is modus ponens with 3 minors instead of one, and also a qualifier (‘probably’). Also, the negatives in the antecedent are a little weird. …Okay, it’s an unusual MP, but hopefully you can see the form.

1+2+3+4 – > [5]

Discussion: This argument presents the following issues: argument from ignorance, cherry-picking, micro-reasoning, missing assertions, modus ponens, qualification, red herring, rhetorical questions.

Ad Ignorantiam: One way of explaining the problem with this argument would be to focus on the misuse of evidence here. D’Souza is calling our attention to the apparently mild nature of the image in the picture. Because this image doesn’t look like a riot, he wants us to conclude that this was not a riot, but that ignores the many other reasons we have to think of this as a riot.

Cherry Picking: While this image may seem fairly unthreatening (although it certainly does document crimes, one of them being theft), this ignores the many images and videos of the incident which depict actual violence quite clearly. D’Souza has chosen a convenient sample which supports his own conclusions while ignoring others.

Micro-Reasoning: As with any other tweet, this argument has a small amount of space to develop the point. Whether or not D’Souza could produce a better argument with more space is another question, but the medium certainly does constrain the possibilities here.

Missing Assertions: D’souza does not spell out his main point in explicit terms, so this argument contains a missing conclusion.

Modus Ponens: This argument has elements of Modus Ponens to it, at least if you ignore the qualifier.

Qualification: D’souza includes the word probably in his major premise, which would seem to transform this largely deductive argument into an instance of inductive reasoning.

Red Herring: Another way of getting at the problem with this argument would be to say that it is simply a red herring. The fact that a couple people don’t seem to be engaging in violent acts at one moment in the events simply does not address questions about violence in others or even the intent of those who planned it. Of course, the ‘argument from ignorance’ and ‘cherry picking’ may give us a better sense of the diversion tactic D’Souza is using, but the bottom line is that this argument is inviting us to focus on a red herring.

Rhetorical Questions: The quest sentence is not really a question of course. D’Souza is implying that the picture does not at all look like an insurrection, a riot, or a coup. He puts his point here in the form of a question for rhetorical effect. Frankly, I don’t think it helps much as the statement does not look true, even as an assertion of probability. It would be worse if D’Souza left this as a categorical statement, but this little qualifier just doesn’t help.

Evaluation: The argument fails by virtue of the irrelevance of the assumptions in question. This is clearly a red herring and an appeal to ignorance; that it takes the form of a modus ponens doesn’t change this. Most likely, the biggest way to address the issue would be to simply deny the truth of premise 4, both in the abstract and as regards this specific subject matter. Just because you can find a relatively peaceful image occurring in the midst of a riot doesn’t mean it isn’t a riot. The consequent does not follow from the antecedent in this statement. not categorically and not probably.

Final Thoughts: If it appears that I have not shown much respect for Dinesh D’Souza, the author of this argument, that is not an accident. Please accept my apologies for the lapse in decorum.