The motte-and-bailey fallacy is a sneaky—but popular—persuasion strategy where someone tries to defend a questionable statement using rhetoric rather than logic. Here’s how to recognize and respond to these fallacies.
It’s guessing game time: what in the world is a motte-and-bailey?
By way of a hint, the fallacy named after the motte-and-bailey attempts to make weak arguments seem harder to attack. So, if you were leading towards “answer a,” you’d be right.
Motte-and-bailey refers to a style of castle built on a mount called a motte, overlooking a courtyard known as the bailey. The bailey served as a tiny, walled village complete with kitchens, shops, and barracks—practical, but difficult to defend against attacks. Under threats of enemy invasion, however, the bailey’s residents could retreat to the high, fortified motte.
In the same way, motte-and-bailey fallacies begin when someone presents a controversial, hard-to-defend point—the “bailey.” Then, when another person challenges that position, the arguer replaces the weak point with a more defensible one, representing the motte. For example:
Arguer: Churches indoctrinate children with dangerous myths, so youth under 18 shouldn’t be allowed to attend church (bailey).
Respondent: Actually, denying minors the right to decide whether and where they worship would be a serious breach of religious freedom.
Arguer: I just believe in defending the intellectual rights of children! (motte).
Did you catch what happened? The arguer’s position didn’t change. But instead of acknowledging the position’s issues, the arguer conflated the position with a better sounding one. As another example,
Arguer: I think we should legalize euthanasia for newborns if parents decide they can’t handle the responsibility of raising a child.
Respondent: By definition, that would be murder.
Arguer: I’m only trying to protect parents’ freedom and prevent children from being raised under neglectful or impoverished conditions. You don’t want children growing up in poverty, do you?
That arguer’s last comment highlights how a couple of other fallacies can hitchhike along with motte-and-bailey arguments. One is the strawman fallacy, which works like the opposite of a motte-and-bailey. While motte-and-bailey fallacies reframe weak positions to look stronger, strawman fallacies reframe strong positions to look weaker—and as easy to knock down as a scarecrow.
In this case, the arguer committed a strawman fallacy by reframing the respondent’s strong position—that infanticide is murder—to suggest that the respondent does not care about impoverished children. The respondent, however, said nothing of the sort. To refute the strawman, the respondent can simply clarify what was actually stated.
But there’s another fallacy hidden in the arguer’s comment too. By suggesting that if the respondent doesn’t advocate for infanticide, then the respondent must oppose helping impoverished children, the arguer is setting up an either-or fallacy. Either-or fallacies present two options as mutually exclusive, when both could be true, both could be false, there might be middle ground between them, or additional possibilities may exist.
In this case, the arguer is falsely implying, “either we legalize infanticide, or children will grow up in poverty.” But there are many, many ways to prevent childhood poverty besides killing children, just as there are many, many ways to prevent elder abuse besides killing people who are approaching old age. Pointing this out would declaw the motte-and-bailey argument.
As these examples illustrate, responding to motte-and-baileys can require weeding out multiple levels of flawed logic. For starters, it’s always helpful to clarify what both persons actually stated—no more, no less. Doing so brings the arguer back to the problem-ridden “bailey,” while removing any strawmen.
Next, you can gently answer any faulty claims in the arguer’s original statement. Take, for instance, the first argument that minors should not be allowed in church. That argument rested on the premise, “Churches indoctrinate children with dangerous myths.” So, you could point to solid apologetics information explaining why the Bible is anything but a collection of myths. Showing that the Bible is logically defendable—and that God’s Word provides a foundation for logic—would simultaneously answer the argument’s hidden either-or fallacy, which falsely implies that churches can either teach Scripture or support children’s intellectual development, but not both.
Defending the Bible’s truth would also address the false premises hidden in the argument about infanticide. By saying infanticide should be considered “okay,” the arguer is suggesting that (1) humans define moral truth and (2) not all human lives possess equal, inherent value. The Bible refutes these premises, but an evolutionary worldview supports both.1 So, fully answering this motte-and-bailey argument requires responding to the worldview behind the argument.
As with most fallacies, the best tool for recognizing and responding to motte-and-bailey arguments is ultimately the truth. Focusing on the truth of “bailey” statements’ issues keeps us from being distracted by mighty-seeming “mottes.” Clarifying the truth about our own positions keeps any strawmen at bay. Presenting the truth about the arguments’ topics refutes false premises, reveals faulty worldviews, and answers either-or fallacies. Truth exposes motte-and-bailey arguments for the rhetoric ploys that they are, leaving no room for guessing games.