Shaving with Hanlon’s razor about once a week helps me stay generous and avoid cynicism.
No, Hanlon isn’t a brand of blade, and it’s certainly not for shaving my beard. It’s a super helpful principle for thinking about why people do what they do. You might say it’s for “shaving” human motivation. I like to paraphrase it thus:
Never attribute to malice whatever is adequately explained by thoughtlessness.Robert J Hanlon (my paraphrase)
(The original version has “stupidity” instead of “thoughtlessness”—more on why I paraphrase it in a bit.)
It’s an important principle because living in a world full of other humans means experiencing hurt from them. And there’s a body of evidence that indicates that the trauma we experience from what other people do to us is likely to be more painful and scarring than from natural events. A big part of that is the reality of human will and choice. A natural event, however catastrophic, has an element of randomness to it. It doesn’t really care about you, or anyone, it just is. But when it’s someone else hurting you, and you feel like it was an act of deliberate ill intent—that someone like you looked at you and made the choice to hurt you—that cuts deep.
(Side note: This in fact poses a unique challenge for anyone who believes in a God who is both benevolent and all-powerful, because then natural events become things that could have been stopped but weren’t. Christian theology for instance has a whole branch called theodicy which is all about wrestling with this problem, going all the way back to the earliest written book—and one of the longest—in the Bible, Job.)
To fully appreciate the value of Hanlon’s Razor, it’s useful to understand the idea from social psychology known as “fundamental attribution error.” When I first came to the UK I experienced what several non-UK natives before me have: the way people you know and who know will walk past you without even saying hello. It was confusing and often threw me off, and I’d be left wondering if we weren’t the friends I thought we were, or if I had somehow offended them. The funny thing is, I knew British folk could be that way and that it was a cultural thing, but that didn’t stop me feeling uncomfortable about these experiences.
That was fundamental attribution error at work. It’s basically the idea that we tend to interpret the behaviour of others as a function of who they really are, but with ourselves we give more weight to environmental factors. For instance, I had my moments of walking past people I knew without saying hello, but of course I understood that it was because I was in a hurry, or didn’t want to risk not being replied back, or any number of what to me were perfectly acceptable reasons.
We know our own reasons. And other people know theirs, which we can’t know any more than they can ours. The helpful thing to do would be to assume they have their reasons. A version of this is what people refer to as “assuming positive intent”: that when people do things, they mean well. Which, sure, isn’t always the case, but the point is, if you don’t know why someone did something, why not assume good rather than ill will?
It’s hard, no doubt, and harder still when there’s active hurt to us. And that’s when Hanlon’s Razor comes in. Thanks to fundamental attribution error, we are inclined when people do hurtful things to read it as malice, that they must have meant to hurt us and perhaps we’re lucky to have escaped with whatever we did. But more often than not, people aren’t being malicious. They’re just not being thoughtful. You might even say they’re being stupid as in the original version, but that often suggests a deficiency of intelligence, when most of these situations are more a deficiency of consideration.
So we can rephrase Hanlon’s Razor to mean that when we can’t possibly or meaningfully assume goodwill, we can often assume no will rather than ill will.
And this applies from personal experiences to international situations. That person who cut you off in traffic? Probably didn’t mean to be mean as much as they were just not thinking about you. A lot of the mishandling of COVID last year? Thoughtlessness run amok. And as I often point out to conspiracy theorist friends, they’re generally assuming a level of human coordination and forethought that neither history nor my experience largely bears out.
Hanlon’s Razor helps me stay generous by allowing people the benefit of doubt: that they are far more likely to be thoughtless than mean.
What of actually malicious behaviour? Well, this is where it’s helpful to remember that Hanlon’s Razor is after all, a razor: a rule of thumb to help us slice through reality and make sense of it more sharply. In that it is like Occam’s Razor, the scientific rule of thumb Robert J Hanlon made his as a humourous counterpart to. Occam’s Razor reminds us to favour simple over overly complex explanations for natural phenomena (another reason against conspiracy theories), while Hanlon’s reminds us to favour ill-consideration over ill-will in human behaviour.
Sometimes, though, the explanation is indeed complex however, and the behaviour indeed malicious, and we are wise to pay attention. At that point, a different axiom becomes relevant:
When people show you who they are, believe them.Maya Angelou
Read more: Hanlon’s Razor (Wikipedia)