Hanlon's razor

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Hanlon's razor is an adage or rule of thumb that states:[1]

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

Known in several other forms, it is a philosophical razor that suggests a way of eliminating unlikely explanations for human behavior. It is probably named after Robert J. Hanlon, who submitted the statement to Murphy's Law Book Two (1980).[1] Similar statements have been recorded since at least the 18th century.


A similar quotation appears in Robert A. Heinlein's novella Logic of Empire (1941).[2] The character "Doc" in Heinlein's story described the "devil theory" fallacy, explaining, "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity."[3]

The quotation as such was a submission credited in print to Robert J. Hanlon of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for a compilation of various jokes related to Murphy's law that were published in Arthur Bloch's Murphy's Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong! (1980).[1] It is unknown whether Hanlon knew of Heinlein's story or whether he independently constructed the phrase.

Hanlon's razor became well known after its inclusion in the Jargon File, a glossary of computer programmer slang, since 1990.[4] Later that same year, the Jargon File editors noted lack of knowledge about the term's derivation and the existence of a similar epigram by William James, although this was possibly intended as a reference to William James Laidlay.[5][6] In 1996, the Jargon File entry on Hanlon's Razor noted the existence of the phrase in Heinlein's novella, with speculation that Hanlon's Razor might be a corruption of "Heinlein's Razor".[2] The link to Murphy's law was described in a pair of 2001 blog entries by Quentin Stafford-Fraser, citing emails from Joseph E. Bigler.[7][8] Subsequently, in 2002, the Jargon File entry noted the same.[9] Current Jargon File refers to it as a "Murphyism".[10]

The name was inspired by Occam's razor.[11]

Other variations of the idea[edit]

Earlier attributions to the idea go back to at least the 18th century.[12] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in the first entry of his influential epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774, first English translation 1779): "[...] Mißverständnisse und Trägheit vielleicht mehr Irrungen in der Welt machen als List und Bosheit. Wenigstens sind die beiden letzteren gewiß seltener." ('[...] misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At any rate, the latter two are certainly rarer.') [13] Another variation appears in The Wheels of Chance (1896) by H.G. Wells:

There is very little deliberate wickedness in the world. The stupidity of our selfishness gives much the same results indeed, but in the ethical laboratory it shows a different nature.[14]

A similar quote is also misattributed to Napoleon.[12] Andrew Roberts, in his biography of Winston Churchill, quotes from Churchill's correspondence with King George VI in February 1943 regarding disagreements with Charles De Gaulle: "'His 'insolence ... may be founded on stupidity rather than malice.'"[15]: 771 

See also[edit]


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  1. ^ a b c Arthur Bloch (1980). Murphy's Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong!. Price Stern Sloan. p. 52. ISBN 9780417064505.
  2. ^ a b Eric S. Raymond, ed. (24 July 1996). "The Jargon File, Version 4.0.0". jargon-file.org. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  3. ^ Robert Heinlein (1 March 1941). "Logic of Empire". Astounding Science-Fiction. Vol. 27, no. 1. p. 39. Retrieved 8 August 2018.
  4. ^ Guy L. Steele; Eric S. Raymond, eds. (12 June 1990). "The Jargon File, Version 2.1.1 (Draft)". jargon-file.org. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  5. ^ Quote Investigator (30 December 2016). "Never Attribute to Malice That Which Is Adequately Explained by Stupidity". quoteinvestigator.com. Retrieved 24 December 2022.
  6. ^ Eric S. Raymond; Guy L. Steele, eds. (15 December 1990). "The Jargon File, Version 2.2.1". jargon-file.org. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  7. ^ Stafford-Fraser, Quentin (26 November 2001). "[untitled]". Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  8. ^ Stafford-Fraser, Quentin (4 December 2001). "The origins of Hanlon's Razor". Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  9. ^ Eric S. Raymond, ed. (3 March 2002). "The Jargon File, Version 4.3.2". jargon-file.org. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  10. ^ "Hanlon's Razor". Jargon File. Eric S. Raymond. 3 March 2002. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  11. ^ Livraghi, Giancarlo (2004). Il potere della stupidità. Pescara, Italy: Monti & Ambrosini SRL. p. 1. ISBN 9788889479131.
  12. ^ a b Selin, Shannon (14 July 2014). "Napoleon Misquoted - Ten Famous Things Bonaparte Never Actually Said". MilitaryHistoryNow.com. Retrieved 12 April 2019.
  13. ^ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774). Die Leiden des jungen Werthers or The Sufferings of Young Werther. Translated by Bayard Quincy Morgan. p. 14.
  14. ^ Wells, H.G. (1896). The Wheels of Chance.
  15. ^ Roberts, Andrew (2019). Churchill: Walking with Destiny. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 9781101981009.