Hanlon's razor

Hanlon's razor is an adage 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 that suggests a way of eliminating unlikely explanations for human behavior. It is likely named after Robert J. Hanlon, who submitted the statement to a joke book. Similar statements have been recorded since at least the 18th century.

The Court of Foolishness of Gerard de Lairesse. The accused, pursued by Hatred, is led by Calumny, Envy and Perfidy before a judge with donkey ears, surrounded by Ignorance and Suspicion.


Inspired by Occam's razor,[2] Hanlon's razor became known as such in 1990 by the Jargon File, a glossary of computer programmer slang, though the phrase itself had been in general usage years before.[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 emails from Joseph E. Bigler[8][9] explaining that the quotation was contributed by 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] It is unknown if Hanlon knew of Heinlein's story, or independently constructed the phrase.

Other variations of the ideaEdit

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 1812 novel The Loyalists: An Historical Novel:[11] "Let us not attribute to malice and cruelty what may be referred to less criminal motives."[13]: 134  A similar quote is also misattributed to Napoleon.[11] 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 

See alsoEdit


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  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. 3 March 2002. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  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. ^ Eric S. Raymond; Guy L. Steele, eds. (15 December 1990). "The Jargon File, Version 2.2.1". jargon-file.org. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  6. ^ Eric S. Raymond, ed. (24 July 1996). "The Jargon File, Version 4.0.0". jargon-file.org. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  7. ^ Robert Heinlein (1 March 1941). "Logic of Empire". Astounding Science-Fiction. Vol. 27, no. 1. p. 39. Retrieved 8 August 2018.
  8. ^ Stafford-Fraser, Quentin (26 November 2001). "[untitled]". Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  9. ^ Stafford-Fraser, Quentin (4 December 2001). "The origins of Hanlon's Razor". Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  10. ^ Eric S. Raymond, ed. (3 March 2002). "The Jargon File, Version 4.3.2". jargon-file.org. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  11. ^ a b c d Selin, Shannon (14 July 2014). "Napoleon Misquoted - Ten Famous Things Bonaparte Never Actually Said". MilitaryHistoryNow.com. 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. ^ West, Jane (1812). The Loyalists: An Historical Novel. Vol. 2. Boston. ISBN 9780665500428.
  14. ^ Roberts, Andrew (2019). Churchill: Walking with Destiny. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 9781101981009.