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. Continue reading “Hanlon’s Razor”

On self-cultivation

The gentleman maintains his own self-cultivation and so the world is at peace.  The problem with other people is that they abandon their own fields and weed the fields of others.  They demand much of others, while putting little responsibility on themselves.

Mengzi, 7B:32

On courage

Zilu said, “Does the gentleman admire courage?”

The Master said, “The gentleman admires rightness above all. A gentleman who possessed courage but lacked a sense of rightness would create political disorder, while a common person who possessed courage but lacked a sense of rightness would become a bandit.”

Confucius, Analects 17.23

On archery

The archer is in some ways similar to the superior man.  Upon missing the target they turn their gaze inward and seek the cause within themselves.

Confucius, Maintaining Perfect Balance

On anxiety

Sima Niu asked about the gentleman.

The Master replied, “The gentleman is free of anxiety and fear.”

“‘Free of anxiety and fear’ – is that all there is to being a gentleman?”

“If you can look inside yourself and find no faults, what cause is there for anxiety or fear?”

Confucius, Analects 12.4

On gratitude

From everything that comes about in the universe one may easily find cause to praise providence if one possesses these two qualities, the capacity to view each particular event in relation to the whole, and a sense of gratitude.  For, otherwise, one will either fail to recognize the usefulness of what has come about, or else fail to be truly grateful if one does in fact recognize it.

Epictetus, Discourses 1.6.1-2

Welfare, the Stoics, and reference dependence

My essay on the relationship between Stoic and economic ideas about welfare has been published in the Journal of Markets & Morality.

Economic accounts of consumer welfare focus heavily on the physical circumstances of the consumer.  In contrast, in many religious and philosophical traditions, welfare is thought to be largely independent of physical circumstances.  This essay argues that the introduction of reference dependence enriches economic models of choice in a way that connects the economic account of welfare with the contrasting account offered by the Stoics….

Read the whole piece.

An Attitude of Stewardship

My essay on how an attitude of stewardship toward our possessions can benefit Christians in times of loss has been published in The Banner.

Panic surged through Wall Street in October of 1929. On October 24, stock prices plunged briefly before several large banks intervened and the market rallied. But things were about to get much worse. On Black Monday, October 28, stock prices fell by more than 10 percent. The next day it happened again. Prices would continue falling for the next three years. When they reached their nadir in July of 1932, prices were down 90 percent, and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression.

In the face of such tremendous financial losses, the kind of desperation felt by some financiers was understandable. But it is not inevitable.

The effects of loss depends on our attitude toward our circumstances. Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, “No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity.”

Studies by economists and psychologists provide support for Seneca’s observation. Our satisfaction with our circumstances depends on the comparisons we make. We compare our circumstances to our expectations, and we hate losing things we were expecting to have. That aversion to loss influences all sorts of decisions, including decisions about investments, insurance, and how long to work. It may even influence the performance of professional athletes, with golfers playing better when they need to save par than when they have the chance to beat it.

But loss cannot be avoided. Cars rust, fabrics fray, and bodies fail. All who are born must die, and each of us leaves this world with empty hands.

The Bible describes an attitude toward loss that can protect us from the disappointment that accompanies it. Our expectations about the future often reflect our current circumstances, but, as Seneca knew, they also reflect the way we see ourselves and the world around us.

Read the whole piece.