hanlons-razor-examples

Beyond Good and Evil

I’ve watched enough horror movies to become familiar with one theme: Satan is the bad guy who shows up and wrecks. yo. shit.

Fiction has transformed the devil from the tempter of Adam and Eve, into the embodiment of pure evil.

But 40 years of literary research paints a different story:

A strict reading of the Bible shows Satan to be less like Darth Vader… and more like an overzealous prosecutor.”

Satan’s basic intention is to uncover wrongdoing and treachery, however overzealous and unscrupulous the means. But he’s still part of God’s administration. (Source: Henry Kelly, UCLA English professor)

In the past, I’ve written about the human tendency to think in binary modes.

It’s ridiculously easy to paint someone as good or evil. Smart or dumb. Asshole or nice guy.

We do it to Satan, and we do it in judging others.

As I’ve come to find out in my own life, the devil is in the details.

Ignorant; not racist

My first time in Colombia was also my first time on South American soil. The cities were vibrant. The food was bland. The outdoors was amazing. The people were…mostly nice.

Traveling with two of my Asian friends, we’d often get accosted by locals:

Japonés!
Coreano!

And when they get it almost right (no one guesses Taiwanese), they’d exclaim as if a futbol goal was scored:

Chinoooo!!!

This used to enrage me. (This must be racist, right? How dare they?)

One day, traveling solo in Argentina, I finally engaged a heckler:

Buen intento. Soy de Taiwan. Vivo en California.
(Good Guess. I’m from Taiwan. I live in California.)

And the doors to conversation opened up. I talked to strangers about their jobs, love lives, and the shared hatred for traffic (traffic is always the worst in the city you’re from).

To my surprise, more Latinx know about Taiwan than my fellow Americans (it’s not Thailand). Ironically, this showed how ignorant I was.

These conversations made me realize that most of the locals were not the rude, racists I made them out in my head.

Most of the time they were curious.
At worst, they were ignorant.
No one was evil.

Hanlon’s Razor and why we shouldn’t assume the worst

Do you remember the last time you woke up, and thought to yourself…

I’m going to be evil. I’m going to go fuck up someone’s day. ?

Unless you’re a psychopath, I hope your answer was something along these lines:

Of course not. Why the fuck would I think that?

But it’s supremely easy to judge others and think they’re out to get you…

She’s such a fake bitch. I can’t stand her.
That waiter was the worst, he ruined our evening.
They’re coming here unfairly and taking all our jobs.

I’ve discovered a more boring truth:

Most people are just concerned about themselves.

Rarely anyone is actively trying to be a bad person.

They’re just acting the way they’re used to, in that moment, with the information (or lack of) that they have.

Napoleon Bonaparte was known for saying…

Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

A variation called Hanlon’s Razor goes…

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

Now I add my own distinction:

We tend to attribute malice to things that can be better explained by the wider spectrum of human nature.

When you flip the script, it feels terrible for someone to make a complete conclusion of you based on an incomplete understanding of who you are.

No one wakes up wanting to be a bad parent, toxic partner, or terrible member of society.

So how do we prevent ourselves from assuming the worst?

The antidote to malice

On March 12, 2009, Bernie Madoff pleaded guilty to operating the largest private Ponzi scheme in history. Damages were estimated at an unthinkable $64 billion (Wikipedia).

The money question: Was Bernie Madoff evil?

My 19 year old self certainly thought so. The 4,800 clients who lost their money definitely think so.

Ponzi Supernova, a podcast featuring interviews with the man himself, tells a deeper story.

“Madoff says banks and wealthy investors didn’t care whether his business was legitimate, and that led to his scheme’s growth.

‘Everybody was greedy. Everybody wanted to go along, and I just went along with it,’ Madoff says in the series.” (The1A.org).

It’s easy to write off Bernie Madoff – or anyone else – based on one dimension.

“Bernie Madoff was an evil man” is not useful information. This is just a knee-jerk action that indulges my ego.

“Learn how Madoff developed his scheme within a broken banking system” can be extremely useful information.

This can help us identify pieces of a broken system, the inputs rather than outputs and the action vs identity.


I want to make the distinction that to understand is not to condone.

Ignorance and stupidity, left unchecked, leads to dire consequences.

Of course what Bernie Madoff did was wrong.
Or school shootings, what Trump says, and a million other things.

Yet, events on their own hold no moral value.

It’s our subsequent interpretation that we make history good, bad, and everything in between. It’s in human nature to project our values onto inherently meaningless events.

In a way, the evil we perceive is in part created through the way we choose to perceive.

If we can’t even understand Satan, imagine how much else we got wrong.

Instead of attributing malice, considering the wider spectrum of human nature can give us more useful answers.


Also published on Medium.

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