Tag Archives: Ayn Rand

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

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. Continue reading


  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)

I Would Never Die for My Beliefs Because I Might Be Wrong

Bertrand Russell? Ayn Rand? Apocryphal?

russell08Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, while reading my Facebook feed I saw a graphic from a major media organization (The Economist) that displayed a picture of the influential philosopher Bertrand Russell coupled with the following quotation:

I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.

Are these really the words of Russell? I could not find a proper citation.

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a piece by the well-known columnist Leonard Lyons in the “New York Post” in June 1964. After mentioning that Bertrand Russell was still politically active at the age of 92, Lyons discussed an exchange he had with the famous intellectual in the past. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Incidentally, I once asked Russell if he was willing to die for his beliefs. “Of course not,” he replied. “After all, I may be wrong . . .”

The phrasing above differed from the version given by the questioner because Lyons and Russell were engaged in a question and answer interaction. But Russell’s response in context provided the match.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1964 June 23, New York Post, Section: Post Daily Magazine, The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 27 (Magazine Page 3), Column 3, New York. (Old Fulton)

You Can Avoid Reality, But You Cannot Avoid the Consequences of Avoiding Reality

Ayn Rand? Henry F. Cope? Josiah Stamp? Apocryphal?

atlas08Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an expression attributed to the influential and controversial novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand:

You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.
We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.

A student would like to use Rand’s words as a quotation for the high school yearbook, but the editors have asked for a proper source. This request for exact citations has been made to all the students as part of a longstanding yearbook tradition extolling accuracy. The saying has remained elusive despite the careful examination of multiple books and essays by Rand. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: In 1961 Ayn Rand spoke at a symposium titled “Ethics in Our Time” held at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The paper Rand delivered contained a passage that partially matched the saying under examination. The semantics were similar, but the wording was distinct. For example, the phrase “evade reality” was employed instead of “avoiding reality”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

He is free to make the wrong choice, but not free to succeed with it. He is free to evade reality, he is free to unfocus his mind and stumble blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he refuses to see. Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every “is” implies an “ought.” Man is free to choose not to be conscious, but not free to escape the penalty of unconsciousness: destruction.

Perhaps the modern saying attributed to Rand was based on a paraphrase or summary of the text above. Alternatively, future researchers might someday locate a superior match.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. Website: Ayn Rand Lexicon, Article title: The Objectivist Ethics, Article author: Ayn Rand, Article description: “Paper delivered by Ayn Rand at the University of Wisconsin Symposium on ‘Ethics in Our Time’ in Madison, Wisconsin, on February 9, 1961”, Website description: Compilation of key statements from Ayn Rand (and from a few other authorized Objectivist texts). (Accessed aynrandlexicon.com on April 29, 2015) link

The Question Isn’t Who Is Going to Let Me, It’s Who Is Going to Stop Me

Ayn Rand? Apocryphal?

aynrand01Dear Quote Investigator: The Newsfeed section of the Time magazine website recently wrote about a successful fashion retailer which was selling a shirt called an “Unstoppable Muscle Tee” that displayed a quotation attributed to a top-selling author and controversial philosopher:

“The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.” — Ayn Rand

The Time scribe seemed to disapprove of the garment. My reaction was: Are these really the words of Ayn Rand? I have searched for them and cannot find them in any of her novels or essays?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to find this precise quotation in the writings of Ayn Rand. However, QI hypothesizes that the sentence was derived from a dialog in her best-selling 1943 novel “The Fountainhead”.

Ayn Rand’s main character, Howard Roark, attended a school called The Stanton Institute of Technology to learn about architecture. He refused to follow the design precepts that he considered anachronistic and wrong-headed, and he was expelled from the school for insubordination.

Roark’s modernistic designs of glass and concrete shocked many of the teachers in the Institute. Roark and the Dean of the school met for a final discussion before he left the campus. In the excerpt below the Dean delivered the first line and then the speaker alternated: 1

“Do you mean to tell me that you’re thinking seriously of building that way, when and if you are an architect?”


“My dear fellow, who will let you?”

“That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?”

“Look here, this is serious. I am sorry that I haven’t had a long, earnest talk with you much earlier…. I know, I know, I know, don’t interrupt me, you’ve seen a modernistic building or two, and it gave you ideas. But do you realize what a passing fancy that whole so-called modern movement is?”

QI conjectures that the third and fourth lines above were altered and combined to generate a single sentence, and this sentence was directly assigned to Ayn Rand. The process may have occurred via multiple intermediary steps.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. 1971 (Copyright 1943), The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Quote Page 23, Signet Book: Published by the Penguin Group, New York. (Reprint of 1943 Bobbs-Merrill edition)(Verified with scans of Signet edition)