On malice and stupidity

In my previous post, I attributed a quotation to one Robert J. Hanlon. This quotation, known as Hanlon’s Razor, deserves a little more attention.

Firstly, I altered the phrase slightly compared its most common form, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity,” substituting incompetence as the final word. I did this simply because I found this form more suitable in the context.

Secondly, the origin of this adage is disputable. A selection of alternatives follows.

  • In his 1980 book Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons why Things Go Wrong!, Arthur Bloch credits Robert J. Hanlon as the creator, citing the above version.
  • Bill Clarke claims to have coined the phrase in 1974, in the story Axioms of a Mad Poet he published that year.
  • In the short story Logic of Empire (1941) by Robert A. Heinlein a similar phrase appears: You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte allegedly uttered the words “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence,” although accurate references do not appear to exist.

Perhaps there is some truth to the saying that great minds think alike.

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