Hanlon’s razor and corporations

Hanlon’s razor says

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

At first it seems just an amusing little aphorism, something you might read on a bumper sticker, but I believe it’s profound. It’s a guide to understanding so much of the world. Here I’ll focus on what it says about corporations.

I hear a lot of complaints that corporations are evil. Sometimes corporations in general, but more often specific corporations like Apple, Google, or Microsoft. I don’t deny that large, powerful corporations have the potential to do harm. But many accusations of malice are mis-attributed frustrations with stupidity. As Grey’s law says, any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

Corporations aren’t evil; they’re stupid. Not stupid in general, but in a specific way: they don’t handle edge cases well.

Organizations scale by creating procedures to replace human judgment. This is mostly a good thing. For example, electronic devices are affordable in part because companies can hire unskilled teenagers rather than electrical engineers to sell them. But if you have a question or problem that’s off the beaten path, you’re out of luck. Many complaints about evil corporations come from outliers, the 1% that corporations strategically decide to ignore. It’s not that that the concerns of the outliers are not legitimate, it’s that they are not profitable to satisfy. When some people say that a corporation is evil, they should just say that they are outside the company’s market.

Large organizations have similar problems internally. Policies written to handle the most common situations don’t handle edge cases well. For example, an HR department told me that my baby girl couldn’t be added to my insurance because she wasn’t born in a hospital. Fortunately I was able to argue with enough people resolve the problem despite her falling outside the usual procedures. It’s harder to deal with corporate rigidity as an employee than as a customer because it’s harder to change jobs than to change brands.

More corporate life posts

10 thoughts on “Hanlon’s razor and corporations

  1. A good point. However, neither malice nor stupidity should be tolerated.

    I would argue that “malice” is not the proper metric that we should be measuring against stupidity. Instead, we should be measuring against amorality*.

    A capitalist approach seems able to identify the market value for anything, including violating or abandoning your morals**. Time and again, I speak with or hear about people who know that they are doing the morally wrong thing in the name of their company, and think that this is what they are required to do. This results in actions that seem clearly questionable. (For example: Facebook giving apps access to your address and phone number, or Trafigura sending hazardous waste to Côte d’Ivoire.) In essence, we have companies who let their employees believe that the company profit is more important than the employees’ individual morals, and perpetuate a system where moral objections are consistently minimized. We get away with this by conflating moral and legal. To wit,if a serious moral objection is raised, a lawyer is consulted, who is explicitly paid to determine legality, not morality.

    Is that malice? Depends. Is it evil? Probably. Is it stupid? Without a doubt.

    * Whether amorality is distinguishable from malice is probably a whole new can of worms.
    ** FYI, I’m not anti-capitalist, I generally like the system and have done fairly well within it, I’m just pointing out a flaw in the system.


  2. I don’t want to defend malice or stupidity, but both are a permanent part of the human condition. We can’t eliminate them, but we can try to mitigate the damage they do.

    I have a preference for decentralization because local decisions tend to be better informed and smaller organizations have less potential for malice and stupidity.

  3. There is the corrolary: “‘Sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.”

    Which is worth keeping in mind. To a certain extent motives are irrelevant, if your life is ruined or you are killed by incompetence or malice it’s all the same in the end. And some of the defenses are the same regardless of motive (take power away from the “bad guys”, fight them directly, etc.) But some are different.

    It’s interesting though that in many cases the idea of making big, incompetent corporations smarter is very much a “boil the sea” approach.

  4. This gives some insight on why schmoozing is useful in large organizations. When the lady in HR–the one you gave the cookie recipe to– realizes that your cute little new baby can’t see her pediatrician because the insurance has gone goofy, it becomes partially HER problem and point of honor for her to fix. Of course, then you do owe her a bit more schmoozing and some baby pictures, but you knew that.

    The downside, of course, is that you’re not immediately productive in your primary job while you’re schmoozing. Nevertheless, like any other machine, the Organization needs periodic lubrication schmoozing.

  5. John,

    Hanlon’s razor may explain many “rare” and “edge” events. But not all problems that have been associated with being an evil are because of these “edge” situations. Sometimes these problems are considered as the whole company-wide and well-thought trend. For example, the reason that people think Apple is evil is its higher prices and monopoly and closedness in their product market, Microsoft is because of monopoly of their products (remember IE vs Netscape), and Facebook because of its strange changes in privacy information and their frequent change of user agreement (just to name a few).
    These are examples that one may or may not agree. The point is that there are doubts about the general trend of some companies and not their particular way of handling a specific case.

  6. In Life Inc., Rushkoff makes a good point: corporations are immoral. It is not the same as being evil… They entities with rights (often comparable with human beings), an infinite life span and, sometimes, a state-supported monopoly that no human beign could ever enjoy. Yet, considered as human beings, they would be classified as sociopaths. Corporations are human-supported artificial beings who dominate human beings. And coporations have no moral center other than the law.


    I don’t know about John, but my youngest son was born at home (on purpose). This is a major edge case at least in Canada where it is “barely legal”.

  7. Stupidity can be even more dangerous and harmful than malice. A malicious person is more or less predictable, you can more or less protect yourself from him by guessing his rules of behaviour. Putting yourself in the of a stupid is not that trivial (specially if they have power), stupid people usually end up doing more harm because they are often understimated by smart people who think stupids are easy to manipulate. More on stupidity here.

  8. human mathematics

    Another way to agree with this conclusion: think about how hard it is to built a system of rules which fallible humans are going to follow to get anything done as a group.

    You design the system beforehand, without knowing 100% of everything about human nature, without knowing who will fill the roles or how business priorities will change. You design it without knowing the values of parameters or even necessarily what the parameters you’re working with are.

    Think about how difficult it is to design a constitution, for instance. Self-modifying structure run by humans to achieve an end. And the US constitution was designed with more man-hours than a corporation would want to spend on the matter.

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