It's nearly Halloween, so let's learn the rhetorical rules of a good old-fashioned witch hunt. One of the most notorious of these rules is called Morton's Fork, a paradox which has been used in everything from legal cases to strategy games.

There are all kinds of paradoxes. Some arise from the kinks in philosophy. Some arise from mistakes in mathematics. And some arise from the deep-seated human need to make life miserable for others. This last type of paradox - to no one's surprise - rears its ugly head in either law or politics.


One egregious example bears the name of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the fifteenth century, who used it to make political arguments back when politics and law were more formally joined. He wanted people to pay more taxes. So he noted that people who lived carefully and thriftily were living within their means and could spare a little tax. On the other hand, he added, the big spenders who were throwing cash around could easily manage to spend some of that extravagance on tax. In other words, anyone who wasn't naked in the gutter trying to eat moss could pay tax, no matter how they behaved.

The idea became known as Morton's Fork. Two different chains of reasoning, seemingly going in opposite directions, somehow come to the same conclusion. Most often this conclusion is unpleasant, which is why the arguer needs to invoke Morton's Fork to begin with. We see it all the time, now. If someone behaves ostentatiously, they're making a show. If they behave the opposite way, they're making a show of modesty.


One of the most famous invocations of Morton's Fork was in Hollywood. MGM got hit by the heirs to Edgar Rice Burroughs estate for copyright infringement for doing a remake of their 1932 Tarzan movie. They could do this, because they had an agreement in 1931 to make Tarzan. The estate sued, saying that they were actually remaking the book. The presiding judge believed, and wrote in his decision, that the estate was trying to "impale" MGM with Morton's Fork, writing that "either the 1981 film followed the 1932 film, thereby infringing the book, or the 1981 film did not follow the 1932 film, thereby breaching the 1931 Agreement."

Of course, you may also recognize Morton's Fork from the legendary witch trial scenario where a judge proclaims that he'll determine whether a woman is a witch by throwing her in the water. If she's a witch, she'll float and he'll drown her. If she's innocent, she'll sink and drown. Either way, she can't win.

Via WiseGEEK, Open Juror