Can Straw Men Get Pregnant?

Introduction: Republican Candidate, Lavern Spicer posted this on twitter on July 15th, 2022. She is running for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. If successful, she will represent Distict 24 in Florida.

Key Facts: This comment is most likely offered in response to Congressional testimony by Berkeley Professor, Kiara Bridges. During a hearing on abortion access, Senator Josh Hawley asked Professor Bridges to clarify her unwillingness to simply say ‘women’ when referring to persons with the capacity to get pregnant. Bridges raised 2 concerns in response to this question: the fact that some women cannot get pregnant, and the fact that under some circumstances trans-men and other non-binary people can. Her comments have since become a popular target of criticism by right wing politicians and pundits.

Text: “Hey libs! MY HUSBAND IS ALL MAN and has never been able to get pregnant.

Any idea why?”


Comments: There has definitely been a lot of piling on when it comes to the exchange between Hawley and Bridges. A lot of conservative politicians and pundits have been using it to illustrate the absurdity of left wing (liberal and progressive) ideas about gender. Mostly, these argument do not engage the views of either Bridges or any actual thinking in liberal or progressive circles.

Statements: The full argument contains at least two missing assertions and one rhetorical question.

The rhetorical question has been rewritten here as statement 3.

The missing assertions are represented as statements 4 and 5. Statement 5 seems to be here main conclusion. Why? Because this tweet was not made in direct reply to Bridges or any of Bridges’ supporters. It is a general message sent out to the public at large. So, it seems unlikely that she is trying to engage any specific targets on any specific points. Her goal is to mock the opposition. Statement 4 is then necessary to represent her working understanding of that opposition. It can be represented in general terms (as statement 4a) or in terms specific to Bridges’ own testimony (statement 4b). Either way, the statement is likely to seem foolish to her intended audience.

[A] Hey libs!


[2] [He] has never been able to get pregnant.

[3] [Men cannot get pregnant.]

[4a] [Liberals think men can get pregnant.]

[4b] [Liberals think cis-gender men can get pregnant.]

[5] [Liberals do not understand gender.]

Diagram: I take statement 3 to be a conclusion drawn by abduction from statements 1 and 2. Statement is then added for contrast in order to draw the conclusion that liberals do not understand gender.

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Abduction, Contextualization, Equivocation, Micro-Reasoning, Miscontextualization, Rhetorical Question, Semantics, Straw Man, Unstated Assertions, Voicing.

Abduction: As Spicer explicitly suggests that statement 3 is the explanation for statement 2, it seems best to treat the first inference as abduction. The argument seems plausible enough, but a bit depends on the meaning of ‘men.’ If the term is taken to include trans men, then it false and the explanation is too broad for the phenomenon in question. If it is taken to refer to cis-gender men only, then it is true, (At least I am unaware of any information that would contradict it) but this moves the problems in the argument into the inferences.

Contextualization: One of the interesting features of this argument is the way that it frames the nature of the conversation at hand. In it, Spicer addresses those she means to criticize directly. She refers to them as liberal, but of course her arguments are aimed at addressing comments by Professor Bridges, who is unlikely to identify herself as a liberal. Neither can it be taken for granted that liberals fully agree with Spicer. So, there are some real questions about Spicer’s sense of the discussion at hand.

Equivocation: insofar as Lavern Spicer is relying the biological impossibility of her husband’s pregnancy to discredit Dr. Bridges she is equivocating, because Bridges was not talking about cis-gender men (as she, Bridges, would put it). Bridges was talking about trans men. That Bridges uses the same term for both (Spicer probably wouldn’t) types of people does not diminish the error in equating one for the other. Spicer is using the notion that cis-gender men cannot give birth to discredit Bridges for acknowledging that trans men can. This is deceitful.

If Spicer were to address the issue directly, she would simply say that she and Bridges differ in the way they wish to talk about gender. Instead, she casts this as disagreement over a factual matter. She is not alone in this tactic.

Micro-Reasoning: This is an extraordinarily brief argument. As such, it’s author does not get the chance to clarify any of the points she is making. Still, it seems unlikely that its defects are simply the product of brevity. This tweet was meant to distort the issues.

Miscontextualization: Spicer frames her argument here as one directed at liberals, but is it really liberals she is taking issue with? As a proponent of critical race theory (CRT) Professor Bridges would be much better describes as a progressive than a liberal. Critical race theorists consistently oppose liberal approaches to law and other subjects, often describing their work as directly challenging classic liberal politics (which would include both moderate liberals and political conservatives). Also, the lengths to which Bridges goes in shaping her language to accommodate non-binary people would alienate a lot of liberals who may be content to call a trans-man a ‘man’ (something many conservatives refuse to do), but they will not necessarily reshape their language in other contexts so as to align their usage with the best interests of the trans community. Bridges views in this instance, at least, fall far to the left of liberal politics, so Spicer’s framing of the issue is quite misplaced. The effect of this distortion is to create the impression that a larger portion of the non-conservative public is implicated in the position she attacks than is actually the case. She is attempting to erase the middle ground on this issue, even as she seeks to marginalize the any who might be sympathetic to Bridges comments.

Rhetorical Question: when Spicer asks if liberals can figure out why her husband cannot get pregnant, she is of course telling us that they cannot. Hence, her rhetorical question has been reworded as statement number 3.

Semantics: The heart of this argument is a dispute over the language used to express gender. While progressives generally include trans men within their use of terms like “men,” conservatives typically insist on restricting the term to biological (cis-gender) males. Liberals and libertarians vary more widely in their approach to the subject. Ultimately, this argument is an attempt to stigmatize those adopting more inclusive use of the label by portraying them as unable to grasp standard biological facts.

Unstated Assertions: One of the central problems posed by this argument is the question of how best to characterize the points Bridges implies without stating openly. I do think it fair to suggest her goal is a general swipe at her political opposition rather than a focused attack on Bridges (hence, statement 5 as the conclusion). This raises the question of what does Spicer think liberals think. We can construe that broadly in the form of statement 4a or narrowly in the form of statement 4b.

Setting aside the question of whether or not Spicer has correctly identified those who believe as Bridges does, statement 4 might be fairly said to be true, but that would shift the problems with this argument into the inferences (making it a question of equivocation and/or straw man). If we adopt statement 4b instead, then the statement itself is false. There is no indication that even Bridges believes that cis-gender men can get pregnant.

Straw Man: Insofar as Spicer is attacking (and any who might agree with her), this argument commits the straw man fallacy, because Bridges does not saw that cis-gender men can get pregnant.

Voicing: Many of the problems in this argument arise out of the relationship between Spicer and those she means to criticize. This is complicated by two things; the fact that she is responding to Professor Bridges without naming her directly and her choice of ‘liberals’ as the stated target of her criticism. She thus gives voice to a point of view with an indefinite original source? Do really liberals really think this way? Does Professor Bridges? The answer to both of these questions is ‘no,’ albeit for different reasons. All of these are problems entering the argument through the process of voicing those Spicer means to criticize.

Evaluation: The argument fails because it does not actually engage the views of anyone out there. It either fails because statement 4b is blatantly false, or because the inference requires equivocation to make it work in the case that we use statement 4a to flesh out the argument. This argument is unsound.

Final Thoughts: ultimately, this is an argument over the way people use language. Professor Bridges makes a point to speak of gender in a manner that maximizes awareness of transgendered identities. Many on the right wing of American politics are pushing back hard against this, insisting that words like ‘men’ and ‘women’ be used only for cis-gendered people and eliding entirely questions about intersexed people or anyone else who might think of themselves as non-binary. Liberals may seem caught in the middle, and libertarians seem to pick one approach of another. In any event, this is about vocabulary, and vocabulary is always a matter of choice. Progressives cannot force anyone else to adopt their language and conservatives cannot force anyone else to stick with more conventional usage. The closest either party can do is to malign the other side for making the wrong choices on the basis of certain value-based priorities. What arguments like this one attempt to do is resolve that quickly by dressing a practical choice up as a factual question. Spicer wants us to think ‘liberals’ are getting the facts wrong. She had to get several things wrong in order to do that.

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.

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

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 coined the term 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 doctrine consists of a position which comes in roughly two forms; one (the motte) which is apparently true and highly defensible but essentially unremarkable and rhetorically useless, and another (the bailey) which is more exciting and useful but also more dubious. The dual nature of such doctrines enables their proponents to move back and forth between stronger and weaker versions of the doctrines at their own convenience. 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 if 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: Some folks running with this concept have taken to treating 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 in a larger intellectual construct 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 this criticism at the patterns of collective movements rather than at specific authors or specific texts). It takes variations within a given viewpoint as inherently problematic without waiting to see if any given proponent of that viewpoint is taking advantage of the options, thus ignoring the possibility that some people may adopt a consistent stance even as the total public take on the topic may come in many variations.


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 uncharitable.

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 principle of charity tells us that when we see more than one way to interpret an argument, we should adopt the approach that gives it the strongest possible outlook. The prospect that one is facing a motte and bailey doctrine 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 that position while the more defensible versions become a convenient means of dodging the problems of the former.

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 accusing others of engaging in a motte and bailey doctrine. It invites people to draw from a broad range of views when imagining the possible variations of a given doctrine, 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. 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 is far more difficult to show someone that the refuted position is in fact a straw man.

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 popular uses of the accusation. 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 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 culture 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 rhetorical 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 general tool of criticism does exist. Right-leaning critics want to use this club to beat the left, but the more they more they legitimize the concept, the more likely it is to be used against them as well.


Lets Extend that Metaphor!: It’s worth noting that most people complaining about motte and bailet doctrines are affectively accusing others of 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, which is then assumed to be their real 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. People can and do attack the sloppy versions of a position without touching its most substantive versions. (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 there are stronger, smarter arguments out there and the critic knows it.

Weak-manning is in effect, a raid on 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 this. 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 that is also 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 the 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, there is usually another layer to this insofar as such partisan publications often begin by taking a story from the Associated Press or Reuters and then write their own article around it, thus spinning a more dry, fact-based, take into an explicitly partisan narrative, which is then spun up again in the title.

I suppose it’s kind of fitting that the motte would be found in the middle of such articles where they often recount facts from the original source material. The bailey comes in two layers, one being the introductory and conclusionary paragraphs which are more politically self-indulgent, and the other being in the title which is often, as already mentioned, wildly inconsistent with the substance of anything in the article itself.

What makes this pattern particularly egregious is the fact that so many people share links to news stories based on 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. It’s as if the internet was made for sharing baileys.


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. He expressed a concern about the semantics of an argument which was already itself about semantics.

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 motte in a swamp!

it’s a problem.

Still, I can think of another 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 between his sense of the terms and those assuming more common definitions of their meaning.

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 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 an 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 somewhat 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 talk are those that can easily be shown to be false, which usually means that these are the claims that appear to be 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’ versions of agnosticism. Another example might be the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ or any number of instances in which people have tried to distinguish between a bold claim that actually invites people to reconsider their understanding of a topic and a more bland claim that could be called a ‘trolls truism’ in Shackel’s treatment.

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 problem is just the opposite of the conventions 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!

How Many Lumps?

Introduction: This example comes from a cartoon, entitled “Rabbit’s Kin,” featuring Bugs Bunny, starring Mel Blanc and Stan Freberg. It was put out by Loony Tunes.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: Bugz Bunny invites Pete Puma to enjoy a cup of tea, wherein the following exchange takes place (text taken from IMDB):

Bugs Bunny: There’s nothing as sociable as a nice cup of tea, I always say. How many lumps do you want?

Pete Puma: Oh, three or four

Bugs Bunny: [Bugs bunny whacks Pete on the head with a mallet 5 times and 5 lumps appear on his head] Oh dear, I gave you one too many. Well we can fix that.

[whacks the 5th lump back in his head]


Comments: This is of course a joke.

Statements: Much of this argument has to be inferred from the context of the exchange and the actions of the character’s in question. It ends up being a simple argument with an unstated conclusion. (Bugs acts on the conclusion rather than telling us what he has inferred from Pete Puma’s answer.

[1] [I want] 3 or 4 [lumps].

[2] [Pete Puma wants 3 or 4 lumps on his head.]

Diagram: This is a simple argument.

2 ->[1].

Discussion: This raises three themes; Dialectic, Equivocation, Missing Assertions, and Playful Reasoning.

Dialectics: Bugs builds up to the punchline of this gag by questioning his intended victim (Pete Puma). It’s perversely Socratic, …which come ton think of it may be true of many of his cartoons, as well as those of Daffy Duck. Both of these tricksters consistently engage in a kind of dialogue with their adversaries and base whatever punishment they have in mind when the other party’s own choices.

Missing Assertions: Insofar as the conclusion of this argument must be supplied (using Bugs’ actions to determine the conclusion he has drawn), this is an example of a missing assertion.

Equivocation: Bugs clearly shifts the meaning of “lumps” over the course of this exchange. When he asks how many Pete Puma wants, there is a strong implication that he means “lumps of sugar.” After getting his answer, Bugs shifts the meaning to “lumps on the head.”

Playful Reasoning: This is not a serious argument, of course. It is a joke. It is accordingly cheating to use this as an example of the equivocation fallacy.

…If I doos it, I get a whippin.

I doos it!

Evaluation: The argument is of course unsound as it commits the fallacy of equivication.

Final Thoughts: Yes, this post is self-indulgent.

Not Be on a Boat

Introduction: This text is from the play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard. In this scene, the two central characters contemplate death while passing the time on a ship sailing from Denmark to Britain.

Key Facts: This is a dark comedy. The philosophical discussions between these two characters are full of absurd exchanges like this one.

Text: Really, the argument is contained in the last line (along with a missing conclusion.)

“Rosenkrantz: Do you think death could possibly be a boat?

Guildenstern: No, no, no. Death is not. Death isn’t. You take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not-be on a boat.

Rosenkrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.”


Comments: This is not a very serious argument.

Statements: The relevant argument would be as follows:

[1] I’ve frequently not been on boats.

[2] It is possible to not-be on a boat.

Diagram: This one is simple.

2 ->[1].

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Dialectics, Equivocation, Missing Assertions, Playful Reasoning.

Dialectics: Although they are not following any particular methodology, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are engaging in a philosophical discussion through which each builds on the other’s points to help the author make his own points. This is accordingly a kind of dialectics, albeit a comic one.

It’s tempting to say that this might not be dialectics, because Guildenstern doesn’t really build on Rosenkrantz’s point. He just denies it. Yet, the fallacy can only be understood by looking at the shift in meaning between then Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, so perhaps it’s a failure of dialectics, which still makes it a kind of dialectics.

…I think.

Equivocation: Rosenkratz is talking about a state in which existence itself is no longer a predicate of the subject, i.e. the dead person. Guildenstern is clearly evading the point by saying he has not been on boats, i.e. that he, while still existing, simply wasn’t on a boat.

Missing Assertions: Rozenkrantz’s conclusion is not spelled out in the text of the play, but he clearly means to suggest that Rosenkrantz is wrong. So, the argument contains at least one missing conclusion.

Playful Reasoning: the actual source of the argument is of course not seriously advancing an argument here, at least not the one presented above. He is using the form of a denial to generate a joke. It is accordingly cheating a bit to use this as an example of a fallacy.

Evaluation: The argument is unsound because it commits the fallacy of equivocation.

Final Thoughts: Sometimes, the best* examples of a given fallacy are made up for humorous purposes.

* Admittedly, this would be for an ironic value of ‘best.’