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.

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.


The adage was a submission credited in print to Robert J. Hanlon of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in a 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).[1]

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

Hanlon's razor became well known after its inclusion in the Jargon File, a glossary of computer programmer slang, in 1990.[4] Later that year, the Jargon File editors noted lack of knowledge of 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] In 2002, the Jargon File entry noted the same.[9] The Jargon File now calls it a "Murphyism".[10]

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

Other variations of the idea[edit]

A 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.[12]

A similar quote is also misattributed to Napoleon.[13] 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.'"[14]: 771 

Douglas W. Hubbard quoted Hanlon's razor and added "a clumsier but more accurate corollary ...: 'Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system.'"[15]

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. ^ Wells, H.G. (1896). The Wheels of Chance.
  13. ^ Selin, Shannon (14 July 2014). "Napoleon Misquoted - Ten Famous Things Bonaparte Never Actually Said". MilitaryHistoryNow.com. Retrieved 12 April 2019.
  14. ^ Roberts, Andrew (2019). Churchill: Walking with Destiny. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 9781101981009.
  15. ^ Hubbard (2020, pp. 81-82).