Hanlon’s Razor

In philosophy, a “razor” is a simple rule for cutting away potential explanations. The most famous razor is Ockham’s, named after a Franciscan friar of the fourteenth century, which holds, roughly, that simpler theories are better. Similar principles were endorsed before William of Ockham by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and after him by Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

Of less distinguished intellectual pedigree is Hanlon’s Razor, which first appeared in Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong! Murphy’s Law is, of course, the principle that if anything can go wrong, it will. The book is a collection of similar principles, the second book in what became a series, and begins with DiGiovanni’s Law in the preface: “The number of Laws will expand to fill the publishing space available.”1

Hanlon’s Razor was submitted by Robert Hanlon of Scranton, Pennsylvania as part of a contest; his prize was ten copies of the book. Like Murphy’s Law, it is something of a joke, but, like many good jokes, it is one with a kernel of insight. It is a principle for choosing among potential explanations for the behavior of others: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”2

The management of ambiguity is a central challenge in science and philosophy. Evidence is often amenable to a wide range of explanations, and we must choose how to allocate our attention among them. Rules like Ockham’s Razor help us to identify the possibilities that warrant the most attention.

The management of ambiguity also plays a central role in our relationships. The same behavior can arise from good or bad motives. Hanlon’s Razor is a rule for allocating attention among potential explanations for the behavior of others. Care about the motives we impute to others can improve our relationships with them. By changing how we assess their choices, care about the motives we impute to others can also, like Ockham’s Razor, improve our understanding of the world.

We see an example of ambiguity about motives when Jesus visits Martha’s house in the gospel of Luke. While Martha busies herself with the duties of a host, her sister Mary sits listening at Jesus’s feet. Martha, upset that Mary is not helping, asks Jesus to rebuke Mary, but is instead rebuked herself.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41 – 42, NIV)

Mary could have sat listening to Jesus, leaving the work to Martha, because she was lazy. Martha must have attributed Mary’s behavior to some vice, or she would not have asked Jesus to rebuke Mary. However, the same behavior that could have arisen through vice could also have arisen through virtue. Whatever Mary’s motives, Jesus validates her behavior.

The biggest challenges we face in our relationships with fellow citizens often involve political disagreement. Recent decades have seen rising political polarization in the United States. This polarization includes not only differences in political preferences but also uncharitable explanations for opposing positions. In a 2017 survey,3 over 40 percent of the members of each party described members of the other party as “downright evil.”

The motives we impute to our political opponents can affect our understanding of political issues. Just as the same behavior can arise from virtue or vice, the same political positions could be held for good or bad reasons. Indeed, for a divisive issue and a large enough population, each side of the issue is sure to be held by someone for bad reasons. Focusing on bad reasons for holding a position may cause us to miss good reasons for holding it.

Focusing on bad reasons for holding an opposing position may also cause us to miss bad reasons for holding our own position. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus warns against focusing on the errors of others, saying,

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:3 – 5, NIV)

Controversial political issues are generally complex, with different aspects competing for our attention.  To attribute the positions of our opponents to evil motives is to focus on reasons for rejecting positions we have already rejected.  Our understanding of issues will improve if we instead consider reasons for rejecting our own positions.  As John Stuart Mill wrote, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”4

While care in allocating our attention across potential explanations for the choices of others can improve our understanding of the world, the benefits of Hanlon’s Razor must lie elsewhere, since Hanlon’s Razor addresses only two potential explanations, malice and stupidity, and neither promises much insight. A careful consideration of those explanations reveals benefits that may be of even greater value than improved understanding.

If malice is being considered, harm has been done. When we are angry about harm, an insulting alternative like stupidity is particularly attractive.

Our emotional responses to others depend on our beliefs about their motives. When we believe we have been harmed intentionally, we are pulled more strongly toward anger than when we believe harm to have been accidental. Attributing harm to stupidity rather than malice is a step toward putting away anger. Hanlon’s Razor specifically, and care about the motives we impute to others more generally, help us to manage our emotional responses to the behavior of others.

Christian scripture instructs us to manage our attitudes toward others. In his letter to Ephesus, Paul instructs Christians to put away malice and anger, to forgive, and to show compassion (Eph. 4:22 – 32). In Matthew, Jesus says that all of the Law and the Prophets hang on two commandments, to love God completely and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:34 – 40, NIV).

Much of the Law and the Prophets deal with behavior rather than attitudes, but they hang on the commandments Jesus presents because our attitudes spill over into our behavior. In Matthew, Jesus says,

Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit…. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. (Matt. 12:33 – 35, NIV)

Hostility spills over into violence. In the same passage where Paul instructs Christians to put away anger, he instructs them to put away brawling. In the same survey where 40 percent of respondents said members of the other party were evil, nearly ten percent said that violence was justified to achieve their political goals.

In the last year, that violence arrived. Protests repeatedly developed into riots, with over $1 billion in damage, over a dozen people killed, and the United States Capitol ransacked.

The assumptions we make about the motives of others affect not only our understanding of the world and our attitudes toward others. They also affect our behavior and the safety of our communities. Projecting evil motives onto opponents is popular among politicians and others who use fear, anger, or outrage to motivate their audiences, but it models habits of thought with devastating social consequences.

Ockham’s Razor guides scientists as they choose among theories that can later be tested. In contrast, Hanlon’s Razor addresses motives, and uncertainty about motives is more difficult to resolve. Our motives are often complex and opaque even to ourselves, and we cannot see into the hearts of others. For this reason, Paul warns against judging others, writing,

My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. (1 Cor. 4:4 – 5, NIV)

While Hanlon’s Razor is helpful in managing anger toward others, we can improve upon it.  Limiting the explanations considered to stupidity and malice seems, well, a little malicious.  Expanding the range of explanations considered improves our ability to learn from the choices of others and helps us respond graciously to situations in which neither malice nor stupidity provide comprehensive explanations, including political conflict.

Christians are instructed to put away anger, to love others, and to withhold judgment. Perhaps we can summarize those instructions in this revision of Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to evil that which is adequately explained in some other way.

  1. Arthur Bloch, Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong! (Los Angeles: Price/Stern/Sloan, 1980), 7.
  2. Ibid., 52.
  3. Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, “Lethal Mass Partisanship: Prevalence, Correlates, & Electoral Contingencies.”
  4. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 37.