Never Attribute to Malice That Which Is Adequately Explained by Stupidity

Robert Heinlein? Napoleon Bonaparte? Ayn Rand? David Hume? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Robert J. Hanlon? Arthur Cushman McGiffert? William James Laidlay? Ernst Haeckel? Thomas F. Woodlock? Nick Diamos?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is easy to impute hostility to the actions of others when a situation is actually unclear. A popular insightful adage attempts to constrain this type of bitter speculation. Here are two versions:

  1. Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by stupidity
  2. Don’t ascribe to malice what can be plainly explained by incompetence.

This notion has been attributed to military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, to science fiction author Robert Heinlein, and to others. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for ascribing the statement to Napoleon Bonaparte. Robert Heinlein did include a thematically similar remark in a 1941 short story.

The earliest close match known to QI appeared in the 1980 compilation “Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong” edited by Arthur Bloch. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

HANLON’S RAZOR:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

The description “Hanlon’s Razor” was used because the creator was a computer programmer named Robert J. Hanlon. The phrase “Hanlon’s Razor” was analogous to the phrase “Occam’s Razor”. Both referred to heuristics designed to prune sets of hypotheses by favoring simplicity. More details about Hanlon are presented further below based on the research conducted by quotation expert Mardy Grothe appearing in the 2011 book “Neverisms”.

Many people have expressed similar thoughts over the years and additional selected citations in chronological order are shown below.




The prominent Scottish philosopher David Hume penned an essay on “The Natural History of Religion” in 1757. He observed that people were too eager to improperly ascribe both malice and goodwill to natural objects and phenomena: 2

There is an universal tendency amongst mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and good-will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us. Hence the frequency and beauty of the prosopopoeia in poetry, where trees, mountains and streams are personified, and the inanimate parts of nature acquire sentiment and passion.

In 1774 the major German literary figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published “Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers” (“The Sorrows of Young Werther”) which included a statement that thematically matched the adage under investigation. An English language translation 3 follows the German text: 4

Und ich habe, mein Lieber! wieder bey diesem kleinen Geschäfte gefunden: daß Mißverständnisse und Trägheit vielleicht mehr Irrungen in der Welt machen als List und Bosheit nicht thun. Wenigstens sind die beyden letztern gewiß seltner.

And I have again observed, my dear friend, in this trifling affair, that misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness. At all events, the two latter are of less frequent occurrence.

In 1812 the English author Jane West published “The Loyalists: An Historical Novel” which included a thematic match: 5

Let us not attribute to malice and cruelty what may be referred to less criminal motives. Do we not often afflict others undesignedly, and, from mere carelessness, neglect to relieve distress? Our own concerns, interests, and wishes engross our thoughts.

In 1898 William James Laidlay wrote a book criticizing the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and he included a comparable statement: 6

It is the game of life we are playing; and if men, by their professions, lead other men into disaster, I maintain it is a serious thing. Some men, in fact, I think, most men, do it with no malice at all; in fact, far from it, it is more like stupidity; still, the result is the same.

In 1899 the leading German biologist Ernst Haeckel published “Die Welträthsel” which was translated into English and released as “The Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century” in 1900. Haeckel included the following pertinent remark: 7

The most dangerous of the three great enemies of reason and knowledge is not malice, but ignorance, or, perhaps, indolence. The gods themselves still strive in vain against these two latter influences when they have happily vanquished the first.

In 1918 theologian Arthur Cushman McGiffert became the new president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York. His inaugural address referred to World War I and contained the following assertion: 8

Not malice but ignorance is the deadliest foe of human progress. If the present war was conceived in iniquity, at any rate it was born and has been nourished in ignorance. Enlightenment is the world’s chief need now as always.

In 1937 Thomas F. Woodlock, a columnist in “The Wall Street Journal”, employed a thematically similar expression: 9

In this world much of what the victims believe to be malice is explicable on the ground of ignorance or incompetence, or a mixture of both.

In 1941 “Astounding Science Fiction” magazine published “Logic of Empire” by Robert Heinlein which included the following dialog: 10

“—I would say that you have fallen into the commonest fallacy of all in dealing with social and economic subjects—the devil theory.”
“Huh?”
“You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.”

The controversial and influential thinker Ayn Rand wrote an entry in her personal journal in 1945 that included a germane assertion: 11

In effect, fools say that all the problems, personal and political, can be solved by finding “men of good will.” But the “good” is never defined. And actually, most of the evil in this world is done by and through “good” intentions. The cause of evil is stupidity, not malice. “Good” is an intellectual concept.

In 1980 the saying under examination appeared in “Murphy’s Law Book Two” as mentioned previously:

HANLON’S RAZOR:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

In 1982 the “Princeton Alumni Weekly” printed an instance in the “Class Notes” section: 12

Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity…

In 1994 the energetic quotation compiler Robert Byrne included the adage together with an ascription in a volume of his series titled “The Fifth and Far Finer than the First Four 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”: 13

Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity. Nick Diamos

In 1997 a version of the saying was tentatively linked to Napoleon Bonaparte in a Usenet message in the newsgroup comp.lang.java.advocacy. Napoleon was misspelled: 14

Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.
Napolean said something similar.

In 1998 a message in the Usenet newsgroup soc.support.fat-acceptance credited Napoleon without reservation: 15

“Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence”
said Napoleon

In 2011 Mardy Grothe published “Neverisms: A Quotation Lover’s Guide to Things You Should Never Do, Never Say, or Never Forget”. Grothe researched the saying and provided the following ascription: 16

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
ROBERT J. HANLON

Grothe spoke to the widow and son of Robert J. Hanlon who had been a computer programmer at the Tobyhanna Army Depot in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Hanlon had read “Murphy’s Law” by Arthur Bloch and decided to submit one of his own concoctions for inclusion in a subsequent volume. Bloch was pleased with Hanlon’s saying and published it in the sequel “Murphy’s Law Book Two”. Hanlon enjoyed poetry and literature, but the works that may have influenced his synthesis of the adage remain unknown.

In conclusion, QI believes that Robert J. Hanlon should be credited with the saying presented in the 1980 citation. Other thinkers have made congruent observations during previous decades and centuries, but the phrasing has been highly mutable. QI suggests that you select your favorite or build a novel version.

Image Notes: Drawing of Robert Heinlein from “Amazing Stories” magazine in April 1953. Painting of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by Angelica Kauffman circa 1787. Photo of Ayn Rand from her Soviet passport. All three images are in the public domain and were accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been retouched, resized, and cropped.

(Great thanks to Paul Rauber, Emily Johnson, Clementino de Mendonca, Fabien Snauwaert, and Abraham whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Fred Shapiro and Mardy Grothe for their research. Also, thanks to the volunteer editors at Wikiquote who identified some valuable citations.)

Notes:

  1. 1980, Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong, Compiled and Edited by Arthur Bloch, Quote Page 52, Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers Inc., Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1758, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects by David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, Start Page 491, Quote Page 496, Printed for A. Millar, in the Strand; and A. Kincaid and A. Donaldson, at Edinburgh. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1854, Novels and Tales by Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Translated by R. D. Boylan, Start Page 247, Quote Page 248, Henry G. Bohn, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1775 (First published in 1774), Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Quote Page 7, Strasburg und Hanau. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1812, The Loyalists: An Historical Novel by Mrs. West (Jane West), Volume 3 of 3, Chapter 22, Quote Page 132, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1898, The Royal Academy: Its Uses and Abuses by W. J. Laidlay (William James Laidlay), Quote Page 115, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1900, The Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century by Ernst Haeckel (Professor at the University if Jena), Translation of Die Welträthsel (1899) by Joseph McCabe, Chapter 1: The Nature of the Problem, Quote Page 11, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  8. 1918, Union Theological Seminary Bulletin, The Inaugural Address by President Arthur Cushman McGiffert at the Chapel of the Union Theological Seminary on May 14, 1918, Start Page 16, Quote Page 17, Published by Union Theological Seminary, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1937 December 22, Wall Street Journal, Thinking It Over by Thomas F. Woodlock, Quote Page 4, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 1941 March, Astounding Science Fiction, Volume 27, Number 1, Logic of Empire by Robert Heinlein, Start Page 9, Quote Page 38 and 39, Street & Smith Publications, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1999, Journals of Ayn Rand, Edited by David Harriman, Journal Entry Date: June 3, 1945, Quote Page 277, A Plume Book: Penguin Putman, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1982 May 3, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Volume 82, Section: Class Notes 1951 by Richard K. Paynter, Quote Page 58, Column 2, Princeton University Press, New Jersey. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1994, The Fifth and Far Finer than the First Four 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said Compiled by Robert Byrne, Quotation Number 488, Fawcett Crest Book: Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  14. 1997 November 23, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: comp.lang.java.advocacy, From: Roedy Green @BIX.com, Subject: Re: Microsoft cheats on Java Benchmark (was Sun cheats on Java Benchma. (Google Groups Search; Accessed December 30, 2016) link
  15. 1998 September 1, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: soc.support.fat-acceptance, From: bjc @my-dejanews.com, Subject: Re: Great New Books! (Google Groups Search; Accessed December 30, 2016) link
  16. 2011, Neverisms: A Quotation Lover’s Guide to Things You Should Never Do, Never Say, or Never Forget by Dr. Mardy Grothe, Chapter Four: Never Put Off Till Tomorrow What You Can Do Today, HarperCollins, New York.