Hanlon’s Razor

0001365_95-701-platinum-series-double-edge-razor-blades_300You have probably heard of Occam’s (Ockham’s) Razor, but have you heard that Hanlon has one, too? Robert Hanlon’s Razor is as follows:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

I was introduced to this by my therapist because it seemed appropriate for the state of mind I was in at the time (and still am many times). My issue is, and always has been, that I expect too much from people. I expect them to behave with civility, to seek truth and knowledge, and to be humble. As you may expect, human beings often disappoint me.

For example, I expect people to put their shopping carts in the corral, not in the middle of a parking space. Moreover, I expect that when they do decide to walk to the corral that they also put the cart all the way in rather than just at the edge. It totally screws up the stacking process. It pisses me off.

On the surface, Hanlon’s Razor gives the stupid among us a free pass. In my example above, it guides me to simply forgive them for being incompetent rather than be angry at them for being malicious. One could make the argument that willful ignorance or laziness is malicious in intent, but let’s not go there for now.

But, you need to look a little deeper into Hanlon’s Razor to see what the complete context is because, for me, letting people get away with stupidity is not enough for forgiveness. In the link, the author, Matthew Cook, asks the reader to “replace ‘stupidity’ with tiredness, hunger, laziness, ignorance, misunderstanding, shyness…”. Try it with me:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by tiredness. 

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by shyness.

Makes it a different statement altogether, doesn’t it? The message is here is that people do what they do for various reasons and we cannot assume, based on our own biases or justifications, that people act in accordance with our worldview. They simply have a different set of experiences and biology that have brought them to the place where they are, carrying the baggage they have, making the decisions they do. Even “smart” people do stupid things sometimes and it’s not necessarily out of malice.

One thing I want to clear up – ignorance does not necessarily mean someone is mean-spirited. It can also mean that they have not had a comparable experience and, therefore, do not know the proper way to act or respond. Google the definition and it simply says “lack of knowledge or information.” You can’t really blame someone for not knowing what they don’t know. Now, willful ignorance is a different topic altogether, which I will probably address in a different post, but, to choose to have a lack of knowledge on a particular subject is not bad as long as you don’t also try to be an expert. I don’t know anything about ceramics, and I choose not to, but I also don’t act like I know all about it when, if ever, I am engaged in a conversation about earthenware, porcelain or stoneware (I looked that up).

I guess the moral of this story is that we should not assume what we don’t know or else that makes us the potential target for the bloodletting of Hanlon’s Razor. Of course, the person could just be an asshole, too.





Author: TJ Dodenhoff

Part time philosopher, atheist and sarcasm professional.

One thought on “Hanlon’s Razor”

  1. That goes right along with the “Fundamental Attribution Error”, which goes something like this:

    We attribute our own actions to specific reasons we had at the time in that situation. (I did that dumb thing because of reason A, reason B, and reason C.) We attribute them to external causes.

    We tend to attribute the actions of others to the kind of person they are. (He did that dumb thing because he’s an idiot.) We attribute them to internal causes.

    Remembering this helps me to have more patience with all the idiots out there!


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