Ethics and Stupidity

Dumb and DumberWhy do people do bad things? It’s an ancient question. Certainly, some people do bad things simply because they are bad people. Psychopaths and sociopaths exist, though thankfully they are very few. Whether those few should be classified as “evil,” or as “mentally ill,” or both, is not clear to me. Either way, they certainly have the capacity to do evil. But sometimes, surely — maybe quite often — people do bad things stupidly, rather than out of evil intent. Sometimes, as I’ve blogged before, people do bad things because they allow themselves to use invalid excuses. It’s likely that some people know (in their heart of hearts) that they’re using lame excuses. But probably some people sincerely believe those excuses, and simply don’t understand that their reasoning is flawed.

“Hanlon’s Razor” is the name for an adage attributed to one Robert J. Hanlon. It says the following:

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

It’s a good rule of thumb, not least because it is so often true that bad outcomes owe more to poor decision-making than they do to evil intent.

Of course, if what we’re really interested in is why bad things happen, attributing it to stupidity rather than malice just pushes the question down one level. If so many people act stupidly, why?

There are at least 3 kinds of situations in which dumb things happen:

  • Some dumb moves are made by people who, well, are not that bright. The truth is that people have different levels of ability. We don’t all have equally-good judgment, and we’re not all equally good at foreseeing the consequences of our actions. In a corporate context, good hiring practices are supposed to weed out the untalented. But talent pools are always limited. And remember: screwups can in principle occur anywhere within a corporate hierarchy, so there’s no position so unimportant that a company can simply afford to fill it poorly.
  • Some dumb moves are made by people — maybe even smart people — who lack the relevant skills. In some cases, that may mean they lack the relevant technical skills. If you’re not an accountant, for example, you simply may not understand the consequences of certain kinds of bookkeeping decisions. But people can also lack the skills to assess, for example, the quality of their own arguments and thought processes. I teach a course on Critical Thinking, and believe me, people are not all equally good at spotting fallacious arguments or flawed patterns of thought. But it’s a skill-set that can be taught, and learned.
  • Some “dumb” decisions get made as a result of one or another of a bunch of well-studied cognitive biases. Those biases — the subject of an enormous body of psychological literature — go by names like “anchoring,” and “confirmation bias” and “the framing effect,”. (Confirmation bias, for example, essentially means that we have a tendency to accept new evidence when it confirms what we already believe, and to reject new data that challenges our beliefs. It’s dangerous, and we all do it.) Basically, cognitive biases are a bunch of persistent, and generally faulty, trends in the way humans think. They are ways in which we are pretty consistently subject to patterns of error in our thinking. Alarmingly, these cognitive biases tend to apply to smart people, too, as well as to people with the kind of technical training that you might hope would help them avoid such biases.

(For a bit more on why individuals do dumb things, see this Wired piece on Why Do Smart People Do Stupid Things?)

So, there are lots of reasons why people — even smart people — end up doing dumb things. And sometimes those dumb things will have evil (or just bad) consequences. It’s worth understanding the difference between bad things that happen because someone did something bad, and bad things that happen because someone did something dumb, though in some cases the line will be pretty fuzzy.

And I suspect Hanlon’s Razor holds true of organizations just as it does for individuals, and maybe more so. So really, we need to distinguish between why individuals act stupidly, and why organizations do. That’s a topic for another day.

9 comments so far

  1. Julian Friedland on

    True, true. Not sure it makes much sense though to talk about “evil consequences.” Evil seems more like a state of mind, i.e., the opposite of virtue. So it would also be odd to talk about “virtuous consequences” unless one were referring to psychological consequences. But I don’t think you are talking about bad psychological consequences here, as perhaps Arendt did when she described the holocaust as executed not by fanatics or sociopaths but by ordinary people simply taken in by the the prevailing culture of their time (the “banality of evil”). On this point, would you consider this kind of thing to be “stupidity” too? It seems strange to attribute stupidity to most of an entire country as large as Germany. But I suppose if we can have degrees of intelligence between individuals, perhaps we can also have them between countries and cultures (and organizational cultures)?

    It certainly is tough to know when moral blindness is the result of mere ignorance. But I suppose what you are saying does not rule out culpable ignorance. The difficulty is knowing the difference. Do you think the holocaust was perpetrated mostly by the culpably ignorant? I would have to answer yes myself. So that moral stupidity could only be the full explanation (for adults) when they’re merely being callous–not actually evil. Then, something more must be at play. To me it makes more sense to say that German culture became twisted into a kind of callous evil than to say it was merely stupid. So I would say that the culture did in a sense become evil. If so, that is a deep point, that could in fact occur again in other ways, including in business culture. Take Enron for example.

    What’s more, our culture is reported to have become Narcissistic for example (see link below). To the point that it may no longer even be considered an illness. Could this be a similar cultural neurosis that we could ultimately call banaly evil?

    • southwerk on

      Mr. Friedland:
      I noticed in reading about Japan’s descent into the Second World War, the gradual nature, the way that perceptions of truth and necessity moved over relatively short period. That period was roughly 10-20 years depending on at what point you decided the process began. (I was reading The Rising Sun, The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire.) Actions that seemed bizarre in 1920 such as a colonel deciding on his own to start a war as happened in 1937 where such independence was a constant theme demonstrate how fast belief systems change.
      The Japanese in the Russo-Japanese war had an incredible reputation for the chivalrous treatment of POW’s. They were so kind to these prisoners that a good number of Russians stayed on and Russian restaurants were numerous in Japan up until the Second World War. I don’t have to tell you that those beliefs changed.
      While I point this out in the context of your comments on the Germans, I have a larger concern in the way views in the United States have morphed in a way similar to the Japanese, in regard to torture, nationalism and identifying other religions as outsiders.
      James Pilant

  2. Chris MacDonald on


    Good questions. I think group-level behaviour is a whole other topic. I’m really only focused on individuals, here — a small part of the bigger question, I guess. I doubt a complex thing like the holocaust is susceptible to any simple explanation. Clearly a lot of forces were at play. But I’m particularly interested in the role of *incremental* slides towards evil-doing (as manifested, e.g., in the Milgram experiments.)

    And yes, I’m being a bit casual in referring to “evil consequences.” I really just meant “very bad,” but in a way that differs from the badness of, say, the effects of natural disasters.

  3. southwerk on

    This was a funny and informative post, in my poor opinion, one of your best ones. jp

  4. Julian Friedland on

    Good examples James. This is rich material.

  5. Ethics Sage on

    Chris: This is a very thought-provoking piece. I appreciate the topic and think you provide an important explanation of U.S. societal culture today. I especially like Julian’s comment that “What’s more, our culture is reported to have become Narcissistic.” We have a “what’s in it for me society.” It’s the pursuit of self-interests that dictates most decision making. We do not have any leaders to show us otherwise. Just look at what happens to all too many in Congress (i.e., Charlie Rangle), our sports “heroes” (i.e, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds), and corporate America.

  6. southwerk on

    I saw this on “No Comment(Harpers Magazine.” I think those churches with the great political power have abandoned their role of opposing the state and are now concentrating on becoming the state.

    The question for Germans in the 1930s is the same question we face today. When do state concerns begin encroaching on the authority of the church to a point where the church needs to shout “halt”? If the church is healthy and is playing its role correctly, it will check the unbridled growth of the state and will protect its own members–and others, too–from illegitimate state power. Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his famous essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.” He said there were three ways that the church must behave with regard to the state. First, it must question the state. In a sense it must call the government to account, and be a voice that speaks out if and when the state is not behaving legitimately. Second, if the state is harming anyone, it’s the role of the church to help those whom the state is harming. And thirdly and most radically, if the state is behaving wrongly, it is the role of the church to directly oppose the state. That’s where he lost a lot of people. They couldn’t believe a good Lutheran German would say such a thing. But Bonhoeffer was a Christian first and a German second.

  7. southwerk on

    Stupidity really gets a grip when the voices that would slow it down no longer consider it their duty to do so. The press and the church no longer call public figures to account for evil or stupidity. The press trumpeted a call for a desperate need for budget cutting for weeks and then when a tax cut was approved they approved like drunken cheerleaders. Some churches have pushed for and gotten abstinence only programs for schools with the idea of curbing teen pregnancy. In spite of the fact, studies show with stunning clarity they have no or a negative effect, the money continues to flow.
    Stupidity has become institutionalized.

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