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Hanlon's razor

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Hanlon's razor is an aphorism expressed in various ways, including:

"Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity."[1]

Probably named after a Robert J. Hanlon, it is a philosophical razor which suggests a way of eliminating unlikely explanations for human behavior.


Inspired by Occam's razor,[2] the aphorism became known in this form and under this name by the Jargon File, a glossary of computer programmer slang.[3][1] 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.[4] In 1996, the Jargon File entry on Hanlon's Razor noted the existence of a similar quotation in Robert A. Heinlein's novella Logic of Empire (1941), with speculation that Hanlon's Razor might be a corruption of "Heinlein's Razor".[5] (The character "Doc" in Heinlein's story described the "devil theory" fallacy, explaining, "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.")[6]

In 2001, Quentin Stafford-Fraser published two blog entries citing e-mails from Joseph E. Bigler[7][8] explaining that the quotation originally came from Robert J. Hanlon of Scranton, Pennsylvania, as a submission (credited in print) for a book compilation of various jokes related to Murphy's Law published in Arthur Bloch's Murphy's Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong! (1980).[9] Subsequently, in 2002, the Jargon File entry noted the same.[10]

Other variations of the idea[edit]

Earlier attributions to the idea go back to at least the 18th century.[11] First published in German (1774) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in The Sorrows of Young Werther (as translated):[11]

Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At least the latter two are certainly rarer.[12]

A more concise expression of the idea comes from Jane West, in her novel The Loyalists (1812):[11]

Let us not attribute to malice and cruelty what may be referred to less criminal motives.[13]

A similar quote is also misattributed to Napoleon.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Guy L. Steele; Eric S. Raymond, eds. (1990-06-12). "The Jargon File, Version 2.1.1 (Draft)". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  2. ^ Livraghi, Giancarlo (2004). Il potere della stupidità. Pescara, Italy: Monti & Ambrosini SRL. p. 1. ISBN 9788889479131.
  3. ^ "Hanlon's Razor". Jargon File. Eric S. Raymond. 2002-03-03. Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  4. ^ Eric S. Raymond; Guy L. Steele, eds. (1990-12-15). "The Jargon File, Version 2.2.1". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  5. ^ Eric S. Raymond, ed. (1996-07-24). "The Jargon File, Version 4.0.0". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  6. ^ Robert Heinlein (1941-03-01). "Logic of Empire". Astounding Science-Fiction. Vol. 27 no. 1. p. 39. Retrieved 2018-08-08.
  7. ^ Stafford-Fraser, Quentin (2001-11-26). "[untitled]". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  8. ^ Stafford-Fraser, Quentin (2001-12-04). "The origins of Hanlon's Razor". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  9. ^ Arthur Bloch (1980). Murphy's Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong!. Price Stern Sloan. p. 52. ISBN 9780417064505.
  10. ^ Eric S. Raymond, ed. (2002-03-03). "The Jargon File, Version 4.3.2". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  11. ^ a b c d Selin, Shannon (14 July 2014). "Napoleon Misquoted - Ten Famous Things Bonaparte Never Actually Said". Retrieved 12 April 2019.
  12. ^ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774). Die Leiden des jungen Werthers or The Sufferings of Young Werther (in eng). Translated by Bayard Quincy Morgan. p. 14.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)
  13. ^ Jane West, The Loyalists: An Historical Novel, Vol. 2 (Boston: 1813), p. 134