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Skeptical Zen 101

I've been familiar with Hanlon's razor in one form or another for many years. Basically:

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

That person might not be trying to piss you off, maybe she is just making unintelligent/unthinking choices which affect you negatively.

I've also seen it as:

Never attribute to conspiracy that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

Which really means the same thing, but can be more easily applied to companies and government agencies. Is that stupid regulation designed to manipulate an industry to bring some official financial gain, or did someone make a possibly well-intentioned law without thinking through all the consequences?

Without strong and specific evidence of wrongdoing, a good skeptic should not jump to the conclusion that those involved acted with malice or were part of a conspiracy.

It's a powerful and profound tool of thinking. Sometimes you'll be wrong, of course. Sometimes people do act with malice, but you shouldn't assume without evidence that there was evil intent: it's more likely the other person made a stupid choice than is actively trying to hurt you.

However, lately I've been thinking about this topic. There's an improvement to be made to the rule to make it a bit more "Zen"[1].
Step 1: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. Step 2: Never attribute to stupidity that which might be adequately explained by a large set of circumstances you aren't aware of.

Maybe the other person isn't acting with malice or stupidity: maybe the other person is aware of a large number of facts you are not. Maybe, just maybe, the other person's circumstances are such that the action you dislike is the best they can do with the resources available.

Under this paradigm, I don't automatically assume the person is being a dick, and I don't automatically assume the person is stupid, because there is at least one other option: the other person is doing the best they can. No, I don't assume someone's actions are benevolent, but I don't assume the others either.

I choose "I don't know."

2014-01-27 #skeptical-zen