I’ve been meaning to read this post on the “motte and bailey doctrine” for ages, and I only just did so, after I realized just how short it is. (In other words, if you’ve not read it, get to it!)

Obviously, “motte and bailey” and “weak-manning” are standard strategies in intellectual discourse in America today. It’s easy to point fingers at others… but some better questions might be:

Do I fall back on these strategies sometimes? What are the effects of that? How would my intellectual life be different if I didn’t rely on these strategies? What would happen if they were deliberately rejected in my intellectual community? How can I help make that happen?

Alas, many Objectivists (including professional intellectuals) rely on “motte and bailey” and “weak-manning” heavily, particularly the latter. Unfortunately, being fair to opponents isn’t always strongly valued in Objectivist circles, and sometimes doing so is even seen as compromising with evil, blah blah blah. And acknowledging the downsides or inadequacies of some standard Objectivist view isn’t compatible with the cheerleading role (“only Objectivism can save the culture!”) that many have adopted.

Of course, I’m guilty of these strategies myself at times, and I’ve got work to do in that regard.

So I wonder: What would an intellectual community look like if the people involved in it sincerely and deliberately attempted to be rigorously fair in presenting their own ideas, as well as those of the opposing sides? I don’t know — although I can see that approach among some of my friends. As a result, we’ve learned a ton from new ideas and each other, and we’ve developed friendships of deep respect, despite some major disagreements. But how good could it get? I don’t know… but still so much better, I think.

  • Jonathan

    This was a great link. It’s good to have a term to pair with the tactics, as it’s ones that I see all the time. This will help me be able to call them out when they inevitably come up.

  • Marvin VanArsdale

    SlateStarCodex, LessWrong, and Overcoming Bias are Rationalist sites that actively try to “steelman” (opposite of strawman) and avoid other irrational argument traps. You should check them out.

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