Sujith Jay Nair Thinking Aloud

Hanlon's Razor: Some Comments

Do not attribute to malice that which can be explained by the less criminal motives of ignorance and lethargy.

An aphorism of utmost utility in my life is the Hanlon’s Razor. I find it a liberating rule of thumb to weigh a lot of unavoidably unpleasant experiences in daily life. In a less formal & more terse form that I prefer, it reads:

Stupid people abound; Malicious people, less so.

There is a neat wikipedia article on it which focuses on its origin, and also introduced me to an earlier form of the aphorism by Goethe.

Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At least the latter two are certainly rarer. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in The Sorrows of Young Werther

Every time a fellow passenger is curt to me in the underground; whenever colleagues at work are under-appreciative to a piece of work I poured my heart into; when I face those racial micro-aggressions on a bad day; when a loved one is being unreasonable & stubborn: I find myself reaching out for the razor in an attempt to rationalise the situation in my mind.

Over time, as I have used it to great effect to calm a distressed me, I have found it to be a little deficient. Let me tell you a story:

Tia is responsible for compiling a report at work, which she believes would be instrumental in reflecting on the process inefficiencies in her organisation. She is very motivated to make this report as astute as possible, and has a slightly selfish motive of leveraging the impact of this report in her next conversation for a work promotion.

She submits the report, and waits anxiously for feedback. Days pass without a murmur, and she comes to the realisation that the attitude of the management to her report is indifference. She blames her immediate manager for burying the report. He never really likes her in the first place, goes her reasoning.

Tia was a person with a developed sense of stoicism towards such predicaments. She tried to calm herself by trying to believe the management was not being malicious, but rather being lethargic to change. But the more she tried calming herself, the strong sense of dislike for her manager engulfed her. To an extent, she was sure of her manager’s malice. Hanlon’s razor was not helping her.

The above story is illustrative, but it describes a common dilemma we face. In the face of (partial) knowledge of malice, it is hard to give the other person the benefit of doubt. So, the razor is moot in this case, right?

I would like to argue to the contrary. Yes, the purpose of a razor is to eliminate unlikely explanations for a particular phenomenon. But the part which remains unsaid in this definition of a razor is ‘to what end?’. Let us explore this question in Tia’s case.

If the intent is to investigate the real reason for her report been treated indifferently, Tia should assume malice on her manager’s part and proceed accordingly. This has the downside of assuming that the root-cause was entirely external, and usually does not lead to any self-improvement. But if the intent is to consider it an opportunity to do things in a different way next time, the best course of action is to attribute it to lethargy, misunderstanding or plain stupidity. Of course, there is no right way to choose here. But I believe being aware of our options is in itself an empowerment.