Morton's fork

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A Morton's Fork is a specious piece of reasoning in which contradictory arguments lead to the same (unpleasant) conclusion. It is said to originate with the collecting of taxes by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 15th century, who held that a man living modestly must be saving money and could therefore afford taxes, whereas if he was living extravagantly then he was obviously rich and could still afford them.

Elected officers (members of parliament and councillors) sometimes may have recourse to a variant on Morton's Fork when dealing with unhelpful unelected officers, or civil servants. This variant asserts that an unelected officer's non-compliance with the directive of their elected officer must be due to one of two equally unacceptable causes: either the civil servant is lazy or incompetent, or the civil servant is acting willfully or maliciously against the instructions given by his or her elected officer.

An example of Morton's Fork occurs in the Poirot novel Death in the Clouds, in which Poirot sets a trap for the murderer by asking him to dress in disguise as a blackmailer. When the suspect does so - with a hapless lack of skill - Poirot reasons this was because the murderer was trying to hide the fact that he is actually highly adept at changing his appearance. Yet if the suspect had indeed proved his skill at disguise when asked (rather than dress up with "a false moustache that cries out to heaven, and those ridiculous eyebrows"), it would equally have alluded to his guilt.

"Morton's fork coup" is a maneuver in the game of bridge that uses the principle of Morton's Fork.[1]

In American law[edit]

Morton's Fork is cited by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Edgar Rice Burroughs v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 683 F.2d 610 (1982),[2] where heirs of Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs and Burroughs's rights-holding corporation Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., claimed copyright infringement in MGM's 1981 film Tarzan, the Ape Man. The film was a remake of a 1932 film based on the book Tarzan of the Apes, originally made under a rights agreement from 1931, and the court held that MGM complied with the terms of the 1931 agreement as the new film was substantially similar to the old film. In a footnote in the decision, Judge Kearse wrote:[2]

One might perhaps have expected the plaintiffs to contend directly, in light of the issues in this lawsuit, that the 1981 film is based on the book. However, by mounting an indirect attack, in which the major premise is that the 1932 film is based on the book, plaintiffs apparently hoped to impale MGM with a "Morton's Fork": 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. Even if plaintiffs' major premise were sound, which our discussion in the text...demonstrates it is not, MGM was not necessarily forced into the dilemma that plaintiffs seek to create. Since the standard by which we judge the similarity of film to book is not the same standard by which we must judge the similarity between the two films...the Fork is flawed by the fact that its tines are not true opposites. Thus the possibility remained that for its new remake MGM could eliminate the arguably infringing elements of the 1932 film in a way that did not substantially alter the story, thereby complying with both the copyright law and the 1931 Agreement. As it happens, this may have been the course MGM followed. Most of the specific incidents in the 1932 film that plaintiffs claim were taken from the book, i.e., Holt's killing of the ape, Tarzan's killing of the lion with a stranglehold, and Holt's asking Jane if she can use a gun, are not in the 1981 film.

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