FANDOM


WikEd fancyquotesQuotesBug-silkHeadscratchersIcons-mini-icon extensionPlaying WithUseful NotesMagnifierAnalysisPhoto linkImage LinksHaiku-wide-iconHaikuLaconic

A corollary to Finagle's Law which seems to have almost infinite applications in writing comedy:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Ignorance of Hanlon's Razor is one of the more common forms of Genre Blindness. However, applying the Rule of Shades of Grey ("No rule is universally valid, including this one"), Hanlon's Razor is often stated this way:

Don't assume malice when stupidity is an adequate explanation. At least, not the first time.

However, once you pass the Mrs. Bridges test (taken from BBC's Upstairs, Downstairs, in that "Once is bad luck, twice is a bad habit"), malice becomes a reasonable hypothesis. At this point the Dr Johnny Fever rule applies ("When they're out to get you, paranoia is just straight thinking").

Disregarding it is a prerequisite for plots involving an Ancient Conspiracy, Government Conspiracy or similar antagonist. The existence of a powerful, secretive and malicious cabal makes for juicier storytelling than the idea that bad things happen because people are lazy, short-sighted, impulsive or just plain stupid. Of course, they would definitely prefer you believe them to be stupid than evil. Most versions involve someone saying that the noise you heard was just the wind.

Granted, it does have a corollary of sorts, in Grey's Law:

Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

This law relies on the assumption that ignorance in and of itself isn't malicious. It also doesn't account for malicious actions taken to conceal ignorance, which is Truth in Television - the Blue Code of Silence is a good example.

In the war between Romanticism and Enlightenment, Hanlon's Razor is decidedly on the side of Enlightenment (if most bad things are the result of stupidity, incompetence, and ignorance, then one can make the future better through education and good design/idiot-proofing). Not to be confused with Occam's Razor, although the two can end up being Invoked together. See also No Delays for the Wicked.

Note that the phenomenon of Trolling, in all its forms, specifically contradicts this law (though trolling by design does adhere to Grey's Law).

Note: This does not mean that everyone who is wrong can be sorted into "stupid" and "evil" categories. Not by a long chalk. None of us bats a thousand, after all.

See also Poe's Law.

Examples of Hanlon's Razor include:


Anime and Manga

  • In Code Geass, this trope explains: 1) Why Clovis ends up fearing that the Emperor will consider him to be disloyal if he finds out about C.C., despite Bartley's indication later on that they had no traitorous intentions against the crown. 2) Lelouch and his role in what happens with Euphemia around episode 22. Even if he's a mastermind, he was still dumb in this case. 3) Suzaku and his role in what happens when Lelouch gets captured by Schneizel and Kanon after his allegedly "private" meeting with Suzaku.
  • Used in Angel Beats, where the Battlefront assumes "Angel" is an emotionless tool of eradication when really she's just like the rest of them. People around her vanish because she tries to make them happy, which usually results in them attaining that which they missed in life. Also inverted later on when they succeed in getting a new student council president. They start off thinking he is a mindless "NPC", but he turns out to be a sadist intent on ruling that world with an iron fist.

Fan Fiction


Film

  • In Cube, the left-wing doctor's assumption that the Cube is part of some maniacal government plot is immediately shot down by the revelation that it's just a senseless project that no bureaucrat had the cojones to pull the plug on. Which, once the truth sinks in, she admits is actually worse.
  • Both versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still have Klaatu admonish humans for being irresponsible, not outright malicious.
  • In Angels and Demons, the main character is standing in the Vatican vaults when the power is cut, killing the oxygen supply, and leaving him unable to breathe. He immediately assumes that someone was trying to kill him, but he is assured that the Vatican police (who were systematically cutting power to parts of the city to find a bomb's location) accidentally cut power to the grid that supplied the vaults, nearly suffocating him by mistake.
  • Most of The Coen Brothers ' films are studies on human stupidity and the horrible things it causes to happen.
  • Finding Nemo operates on this trope; the otherwise friendly dentist believes he has actually rescued the lame Nemo from the dangers of the reef, when what he has actually done is tear him away from his loving father. Likewise, the main antagonist is a hyperactive little girl who simply doesn't realise that if she shakes a baggie with a little fish inside too hard, she'll kill the poor little fish inside. In both cases, it's simple ignorance at work rather than maliciousness.

Literature

  • The Duumvirate bumps into this trope more than once. And they run the conspiracy.
  • Robert A. Heinlein's novella The Logic Of Empire brings this up as two characters discuss how slavery and its equivalents are allowed to exist even though it's both immoral and economically self-defeating. One character says that it's a product of deliberate malice, and the other replies, "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity."
    • See the Jargon entry, "Hanlon" may well have come from "Heinlein".
  • Touched on in The Shadow Over Innsmouth
  • Black Beauty discusses this; after the teenage Joe Green's ignorant handling of a delicate situation nearly kills the eponymous horse, one character tries to defend him on the basis that he didn't mean any harm, but another responds harshly that ignorance has caused more far more evil in the world than actual malice.
  • Mentioned in the Honor Harrington book Crown of Slaves.

  Haicheng Ringstorff: "That kind of fancy maneuver doesn't exist outside the holovids. Security Rule Number One: Don't ascribe to clever conspiracy what can be explained by stupidity."

  • In James Herbert's Domain, this trope and Government Conspiracy team up to backfire on the authorities, when a nuclear attack on London sends the government's elite scrambling for underground bunkers kept secret from the British public... only to find these bunkers are incompetently designed: easily cut off by rubble, flooded, and invaded by giant killer rats whose existence the bureaucrats had been covering up for years. Incompetence ultimately trumps malice, as the nuclear attack itself was a snafu: it ought to have been directed at China, not Britain.
  • This trope is mentioned in the Animorphs side story Visser. While recounting her past during a trial, Edriss notes that she had potentially discovered an ideal host species for the Yeerks, but was reassigned to a dead end position. She implies to her inquisitors that her rival Visser Three was responsible, but then notes to herself that it was more likely incompetence than conspiracy that led to her discovery being ignored.

Live Action TV

  • Invoked on That 70s Show when Charlie sees Kitty naked. Kelso advises him to walk in on Red naked: that way, Red will think he's an idiot rather than a pervert. It backfires when he accidentally walks in on Kitty naked again.
  • Better Off Ted: While Veridian Dynamics are indeed involved in projects of dubious moral character (killer pumpkins, the bunny that will "snuggle" everyone within a 5 mile radius, etc.), nearly every bad company policy or consumer product is "usually" done without any intentional malice. The episode Racial Sensitivity is probably the best invocation of the trope.

  Veronica (after complaints about the separate water fountains for black employees): Okay, they realize it didn't work. Although there's a lot of fighting upstairs about whether it was the idea or the execution.

  • On The Daily Show, the reason for a seemingly hypocritical omission by the Fox News Channel was debated: Wyatt Cenac and John Oliver representing "Team Evil" and "Team Stupid", respectively.

Tabletop Games

  • Paranoia. As deadly as the world of Alpha Complex is, the real threats aren't those out to get you, but the whole incompetency of the system. The Computer wants to help you, not kill you, but unfortunately it isn't able to do that properly. Shortsightedness, competing interests, and general incompetence destroy the world.
  • Double-whammy in Warhammer 40000: on the one hand, your homeworld may be left to the predations of mind-shattering horrors simply because someone in the Imperial bureaucracy misfiled something and forgot your planet existed. On the other hand, if they did remember they might order your world destroyed anyway because you've had contact with the aforementioned gribbly monsters. In this setting there is malice and stupidity in abundance, which helps the body count climb ever higher.

Theater

  • Hamlet. There's malice in plenty here, but nobody is fully in control of their schemes.
  • Damn near every comedy of manners.

Video Games

  • The Umbrella Corporation in the Resident Evil series appears to be a generic Evil Corporation, what with its using the T-Virus to experiment and attempt to create biological weapons. More often than not, the constant outbreaks of Zombie plagues are the result of massive stupidity and recklessness. Half the notes you find are employees questioning why they're building research facilities so close to Raccoon City or why they're wasting time with inefficient bioweapons. In addition, Umbrella's bioweaponry is a side-effect of its founder's search for eternal life and power.
  • In Star Control II, the Slylandro Probes seem hellbent on deconstructing everything in the galaxy to create more probes. Why was this plague of Von Neumann probes unleashed upon creation? Answer: a programming bug. The Slylandro purchased the self-replicating probes for peaceful exploration. Wanting to learn as much as they possibly could, they innocently set the probes' program value for self-replicating to maximum. The result, the probes sought out ships and evidence of civilization and then immediately destroyed them for raw materials to make more probes. Hilarity Ensues.
  • Quoted directly in Deus Ex on one of Majestic 12's computer terminals.
  • In Portal Aperture Science may use human guinea pigs and have created the most malevolent, twisted AI in the history of their Earth, but it has been made painfully clear that they suffer from such staggering stupidity and way-out cloudcuckooland thinking that there is no room for malice in their plans.
  • In Portal 2, this is often used by fans to describe Wheatley, though it may or may not be accurate in canon. To be fair, after being in charge of the facility for a while, it's a bit unclear whether or not he's just going along with it to cover up how incredibly inept he is.

Web Comics

  • Camelorum Adventures is riddled with it, especially regarding inmates' ignorance of their own powers and COs' general obliviousness and lack of common sense.
    • The COs are good at preventing escapes - usually. But are generally utterly incompetent at most other tasks. A good thing most of the prisoners are well-meaning screw-ups who just want to serve their time and get out.
    • Stan, the warden, has to manage PR, run the prison, run a mining operation on the side, and oversee the development of a halfway house, a zoo, and a homeless shelter. It's easy to see that he's a bit too distracted to make sure his staff at the prison is properly trained. Leads to well-meaning inmates essentially teaching the staff how to get better at their jobs, leading to many a gag about who actually does run the asylum.
  • Subverted in Schlock Mercenary. During the Kssthrata Takeover campfire story, Petey says remembered how he got conflicting orders from 3 officers --

  Petey: You've heard the old adage, "never ascribe to malice that which can be attributed to common stupidity." Well, it's only good advice when there is no malice afoot.

 "Never underestimate the ability of stupidity to catch you off guard and mess up humanity."

    • Sluggy Freelance in general could be considered a big example of Hanlon's Razor. Half the story arcs in the series wouldn't exist if it weren't for people making incredibly stupid decisions.
      • Though that particular example was a subversion, they thought the Ghouls were caused by some idiot unleashing a zombie plague, when in actuality the Ghouls were a Horde of Alien Locusts that had taken human form.
    • Heck, 90% or more of the time a villain has done something right, it's because he or she, one of his or her underlings, or even one of the good/neutral guys has screwed up. A good number of the plots end with two characters thusly:

 Sluggy Character: Why did you do ABCDGFQRS Xanatos Roulette?

Seemingly Malicious Character: Because I wanted Y outcome.

Sluggy Character: Why didn't you just do X action resulting Y outcome?

Seemingly Malicious Character: Oh, duh. Nohardfeelingsseeyanever! * Exit*

  • In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, Doc despised Monster Marty for years for seemingly selling out the Vigilante Club, but forgives him when he discovers that Marty did it because his monster form makes him dumb. This leads to the Aesop: "It's better for people to think that you're stupid, than to think you're a jerk."
  • In Order of the Stick, Roy tells Miko that he had killed the evil lich Xykon. When she meets Xykon in the flesh (except, y'know, not), she immediately comes to the conclusion that Roy and the rest of the Order of the Stick are working for Xykon, and deceived her. The real explanation is that the Order Did Not Do the Research on how to destroy a lich: Xykon did get destroyed, but regenerated from his phylactery after the Order were long gone.
    • Miko's Lawful Stupid nature causes her to attribute pretty much anything to malice rather than incompetence, particularly since she embodies the Prosecutor's Fallacy in dismissing any explanation that doesn't fit her preconceived conclusion that Roy Greenhilt and everyone working with him is evil, evil, evil. The ridiculous and paranoid theories she's forced to devise to hold to this viewpoint results in her invoking Grey's Law, when her willful ignorance that the Order of the Stick is not working for the bad guys becomes much, much more harmful to her homeland than any actual malice could have been. Murdering the city's ruler in the insane belief that he was working with Xykon because he was cooperating with Roy, who, as we all know, has to be evil, nearly murdering the ruler's heir because she assumes being proven wrong was just a test by the gods/a trick by Roy, and eventually stopping the founder of her order from defeating the villains and saving the city when her own incompetence leads her to destroy the stone he was guarding, killing her, saving the lives of the Big Bad and The Dragon, and dooming her homeland to Goblin occupation.

Web Original

  • A Cracked article on 9/11 conspiracy theories claims "There are basically two views on the subject, and I intend to provide both equally." Neither view supported in the article is that the conspiracy theorists are actually correct, so that leaves, "They're liars," or "They're stupid." At the end, the writer subverts it by suggesting that "Truthers" are both liars and mentally deficient.

 ...to paraphrase Ian Fleming--"Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action and over 600 is clearly the work of an ancient Sumerian demon or some shit."

Western Animation

 Dib: Chickenfoot, come back! You're not a freak! You're just stupid!

Real Life

  • Just about everything surrounding World War I can be explained by the leaders of Europe acting like a bunch of gibbering morons. The fact that four years of horribly bloody conflict were kicked off because of a student with a pistol on a fortuitous lunch run boggles the mind. Europe in 1914 was a tangled web of treaties, ethnic tensions and monarchical rivalries. A mutual defense treaty seems like a good idea, unless you don't tell anybody about it. (Deterrence? What's that?)
    • Austria had wanted to go to war and so initially made demands of Serbia that they figured no one would accept. Serbia acquiesced to all but one demand, upon which Austria was not willing to compromise. Only after the declaration of war was sent did the Austrians learn that Serbia had sent a post saying they'd submit to the final demand.
      • Also, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian heir to the throne whose death started the mess, was the strongest opponent to a war with Serbia among the Austrian leaders, reputedly having said that such a war's only gain would be "some plum trees and poachers". (Plum liquor was the vodka equivalent in Serbia.)
        • Likewise, France and Germany had been itching for a rematch for some time. France was hoping to get back territory taken in the last war, and Germany was ready to take another slice (or vice-versa).
    • Kaiser Wilhelm II revealed his immaturity and foolishness openly in an interview in the Daily Telegraph in 1908. His rash words about Great Britain ("You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares!") caused an international uproar, but he still kept on ruling Germany.
      • To be fair to the unpleasant Hohenzollern, in Germany itself Wilhelm had previously been seen as far too accomodating to the British, who were generally unpopular in the Deutsches Reich. He was attempting to shore up his domestic popularity. It didn't work.
    • To add to the mess, the war itself was, in all likelihood, inevitable: nobody had thought very hard when signing mutual defense treaties saying that "If somebody declares war on X, we will declare war on them." Hilarity, of a sort, Ensued when somebody actually finally did follow through with their treaty obligation to do just that, a dead guy's war plans went into effect automatically, and there's some evidence for the theory that the US was dragged in because some people in Europe felt that it wasn't fair to let the US stay out of the party. That probably counts as 'ignorance' of a sort, given that it could have easily enough backfired horribly.
    • In everyone's defence, the Italo-Turkish war and the two Balkan wars were all mostly settled within weeks, and it too would have been if it wasn't for the Marne victory. A quick war was not an unlikely event. It just didn't happen.
  • A very controversial theory, put forward by the British historian AJP Taylor, suggests that Adolf Hitler was not the evil scheming mastermind who had filed on his plans for world domination since the "Beer Hall Putsch" (as described in a certain piece of prison literature called Mein Kampf), but instead was a more or less buffoonish opportunist, who initially never thought of actually pulling through any of his ”world domination schemes" (i.e. the invasion of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Soviet Union, etc).

    According to Taylor, Hitler was a small fish in the big pond who got real lucky with his new title of "chancellor", and actually tried to weasel his way up as he swam with the stream, and that it was not until Britain and France had demonstrated their lack of stamina in enforcing the Versailles Treaty towards Germany that Hitler decided he could go even a step further and become more bratty. For Instance, when he attempted to remilitarise the initially demilitarised Rhine area (whose demilitarisation was in return surveilled by France). He sent over troops on bikes and horses, just in case the French retaliated and he needed to make a speedy retreat. When they didn't, he simply tested the patience of the Entente nations all the way to the invasion of Czechoslovakia and finally of Poland, when France and Britain finally declared war, realising that they had missed too many opportunities to stand up to Germany rather than appease. Thank you very much indeed, Neville Chamberlain.

    "But what about the fact that he had already described his master plans 15 years prior in meticulous detail in Mein Kampf?" you may ask. Well the old saying "People say a lot of things when in prison" might explain it. He might also have attempted to garner more popularity among the public from prison, although that wouldn't make any difference in the end.
    • Many historians also suggest that Hitler had no idea he was going to try to exterminate the Jewish people until as late as 1941. When the ghettoisation of Poland began, the plan was just to quarantine them.
  • In contrast to the South Park entry above, conspiracy theories about 9/11 refuse to accept the possibility that any element, any tiny, inconsequential detail, is anything but the single thread that, if unraveled, will bring the whole conspiracy down into bite-sized chunks of truth. The simplest solution is that Bush acted in what he felt were the best interests of the country, and during the 9/11 crisis and indeed the whole of his presidency made difficult decisions that he thought were right.
    • The facts of 9/11 boil down to two possibilities: dozens, if not hundreds, of American politicians, servicemen, and agents (With full cooperation from the airlines and airport authorities) deliberately and maliciously abandoned their oaths of protection and conspired to murder (by action or inaction) their fellow countrymen, or those in charge made a mistake and thought that the 9/11 plan wasn't a threat. I call Finagle's Law.
      • Here in Germany, people have been even more stupid once. It actually happens very easily once a country is in the right mental state.
      • You can make the same analysis of the whole "FDR knew about Pearl Harbor" idea.
        • Well, technically they didn't have any direct knowledge that the attack on Pearl Harbor would commence (the fleet stationed there would have been way too precious to lose), but they did take a (hopefully) calculated risk when they started pushing Japan to the brink of combat by embargoing against them and challenge their influence over the pacific theatre.
    • Hell, conspiracy theories in general depend on the assumption that a lack of evidence is in turn proof of a cover-up. Plain ol' incompetence with a dose of coincidence just doesn't seem like a cool enough explanation, apparently.
      • You'd like us to think that, wouldn't you?!?
      • Officials are just as willing to cover up incompetence (or negligence) as they are to cover up conspirital actions, if not more so. A cover-up does not necessitate a conspiracy, it is more likely to be for covering their asses after a screw up.
          • 'Surprisingly' enough, the US military teaches their leaders to accept responsibility and learn from their mistakes rather than trying to be idiotic and pass the blame. It's the whole idea of after action reports among other mechanics designed to at least figure out why something happened the way it did. Similar mechanics exist outside the military such as sprint retrospectives within the scrum system of project management. So while -some- poor leaders may scramble to CYA, they're more indicative of the individual being of poor quality rather than some sort of epidemic inherent to their role and position.
        • If more than one person participates in the cover-up, and they coordinate their actions in any way, then it is, by definition, a conspiracy.
    • This cracked article says it best, and even invokes this trope.

 "Just as it's wrong to find complicated conspiracy where simple incompetence will explain everything, it's also wrong to presume evil motives where simple mental retardation may be the explanation."

      • The best part of that article is that it has fake advertisements for Halliburton and Freemasonry, implying that the article itself is all part of the conspiracy.
  • Conspiracy Theories always surround the unexpected deaths of major personages. It just doesn't seem right that someone so big and important could just die!
    • Nearly fifty years after his assassination, people are still coming up with harebrained theories about who "really" killed John F Kennedy. Including one that postulates that the driver, who is clearly shown in the footage during the firing of the shot itself, was the real assassin.
      • Precisely! Can you think of a better alibi?
    • Less than 20 minutes after the accidental death of Diana, Princess of Wales, conspiracy theories were already buzzing around the Internet.
    • There was a movie made in the 1970s called The Lincoln Conspiracy. It was basically "Oswald didn't act alone", with Lee Harvey Oswald replaced by John Wilkes Booth. (And 2011's The Conspirator covers a specific aspect of the same story.)
      • It's moderately well known that Booth actually was part of a conspiracy. It just turned out he was the only member of it who went through with the whole "murder another human being" aspect of the plan. His friend Lewis Paine stabbed the US Secretary of State but failed to kill him, and the other conspirator chickened out on shooting Vice President Andrew Johnson. All were eventually caught and hanged or imprisoned, except for Booth as he was shot by a soldier. Conspiracy theories claim he somehow escaped, it was a double killed, people in the US government were involved, etc.
        • In addition to the attempts on Seward and Johnson, there were two attempts on General Grant's life as he and his wife were on their way out of town. One man attempted to catch their carriage on horseback, but was apprehended by the armed escorts, and another attempted to force his way into the Grants' private cabin aboard their train.
        • The circumstances of Booth's death didn't help. Everton Conger (1834 - 1918) was the one leading the search for the assassin. He did manage to track him down and was trying to capture him alive, for obvious interrogation purposes. Sergeant Boston Corbett (1832 - 1894?) suddenly shot at Booth, fatally wounding him. Booth was never interrogated. Conger reported Corbett's actions to be "without order, pretext or excuse". There are suggestions that Corbett was acting to silence the assassin. Far more likely though that it was another of Corbett's insane moments. The guy had a long history of strange behavior, arguably starting with his self-castration in 1858. Supposedly to avoid sexual temptation. He ended up in an insane asylum by 1887. His biographers have noted that Corbett had spend years working as a hatter; his exposure to mercury may have much to do with his strange behavior[1].
  • Glaciergate is said to be this, there was supposedly no attempt at deceiving the public sloppy editing was also an issue, as the editors missed a gaffe that they should not have.
    • It's not going to go away anytime soon, as Michael Crichton's State of Fear made sure there was a fanbase waiting for it!
    • Ironically, this may in itself be due to ignorance of what is expected in the way of standard knowledge within the scientific community. The sloppy editing is particularly atrocious as both the editor and the author of the paper involved should have known that the original source was not one to cite as anything more than anecdotal, and only inside a grant application at that. (The grant in question could be summed up as "Please give me money to measure glaciers for a while and see if these rumors are true.")
  • There's still some debate as to whether the Holodomor, the famine cause by Stalin's agricultural collectivization policies in the Ukraine, was the result of simple mismanagement or a deliberate genocide against a nation that had a (not undeserved) reputation as a breeding ground for counter-revolutionary sentiment. Of course, this is Stalin we're talking about here...

Notes

  1. At the time, mercury was used in the production of felt, so hat makers tended to suffer from mercury poisoning due to the daily exposure. Thus the phrase "mad as a hatter".
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.