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Hanlon's razor

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Hanlon's razor is a principle or rule of thumb that states, "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity".[1] Known in several other forms, it is a philosophical razor which suggests a way of eliminating unlikely explanations for human behavior. Similar statements have been recorded since at least the 18th century. It is likely named after Robert J. Hanlon, a person who submitted the statement to a joke book.


Inspired by Occam's razor,[2] Hanlon's razor became known in 1990 in this form and under that name by the Jargon File, a glossary of computer programmer slang.[3][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.[5] 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".[6] (The character "Doc" in Heinlein's story described the "devil theory" fallacy, explaining, "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.")[7]

In 2001, Quentin Stafford-Fraser published two blog entries citing e-mails from Joseph E. Bigler[8][9] explaining that the quotation originally came from Robert J. Hanlon of Scranton, Pennsylvania, as a submission (credited in print) 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] 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]

An alternate expression of the idea comes from Jane West, in her novel The Loyalists: An Historical Novel (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]

Andrew Roberts, in his biography of Winston Churchill (Penguin Books, 2019, p. 771), quotes from Churchill‘s correspondence with King George VI in February 1943 regarding disagreements with Charles De Gaulle: " 'De Gaulle is hostile to this country, and I put far more confidence in Giraud than in him,‘ he insisted, albeit allowing that his 'insolence...may be founded on stupidity rather than malice.' "

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Arthur Bloch (1980). Murphy's Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong!. Price Stern Sloan. p. 52. ISBN 9780417064505.
  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. ^ Guy L. Steele; Eric S. Raymond, eds. (1990-06-12). "The Jargon File, Version 2.1.1 (Draft)". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  5. ^ Eric S. Raymond; Guy L. Steele, eds. (1990-12-15). "The Jargon File, Version 2.2.1". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  6. ^ Eric S. Raymond, ed. (1996-07-24). "The Jargon File, Version 4.0.0". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  7. ^ Robert Heinlein (1941-03-01). "Logic of Empire". Astounding Science-Fiction. Vol. 27 no. 1. p. 39. Retrieved 2018-08-08.
  8. ^ Stafford-Fraser, Quentin (2001-11-26). "[untitled]". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  9. ^ Stafford-Fraser, Quentin (2001-12-04). "The origins of Hanlon's Razor". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  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. Translated by Bayard Quincy Morgan. p. 14.
  13. ^ Jane West, The Loyalists: An Historical Novel, Vol. 2 (Boston: 1813), p. 134