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The term has its origins in the method of John Morton (1420-1500), appointed Lord Chancellor under King Henry VII in 1487, for collecting taxes from the King's noblemen.

On visiting a nobleman's house, Morton would assess their ability to pay taxes, and the amount they should pay, with the following deviousness:

It may not be the most tortuous logical argument to snare a debtor - even a nobleman... - but no more than you need when you're the Lord Chancellor to a King who was "governed by none"1, with the backing of the court that was to become the feared and noble-quashing Star Chamber.

More recently, the trap has given its name to a tactic in Bridge, which declarer uses to leave a defender two options, both disadvantageous, which relates idealogically to the concept of zugzwang, as found in Chess.

Despite the potentially unflattering association (cunning, unfairness, entrapment...) many caterers and hoteliers have adopted Morton's fork as their company name, on the basis that whatever you ask for you'll get the highest standards in return, and not that you'll find a hefty service charge added to your bill.



1. Francis Bacon, The History of the Reign of King Henry VII and Selected Works
Some sources:
www.xrefer.com - the premier online reference guide
www.bridgetalk.com/mortons_fork_coup.htm - nifty bridge tactic
www.britannia.com/history/monarchs/mon40.html - Henry VII
www.partyon.co.uk/pages/morton.htm - a Morton's Fork caterer

Morton's fork is used to refer to the general style of argument where any response will be used as evidence for the same conclusion. It is a logical fallacy, although it is important to note that it is not generally a logical accident but rather a devious rhetorical trick.

Morton's fork is most often noted in reference to conspiracy theories, where positive evidence is strong evidence for the theory, and lack of evidence is strong evidence that the theory is important enough that the government is eager to cover it up. However, this is also in evidence in religion (all that bad stuff is needed so that we will know evil and can thus overcome it), atheism (your direct personal experience of God is clearly a sign of mental illness -- and that mental illness also explains why you were attracted to religion in the first place), and in any political party line ever.

In many cases this is actually a case of an 'honest' cognitive basis, the confirmation bias, in which information is collected, mentally stored, and recalled in such a way that it remains entirely consistent with previously held beliefs. The difference between Morton's fork and a strong confirmation bias is entirely in how aware the person is that they are twisting the information around.

In common parlance, Morton's fork is often confused with a Catch 22; this error is understandable, as both are examples of a no-win situation. Morton's fork is an elaborate form of Hobson's choice.

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