21 January 2008

Indistinguishable from Malice

There's a bit in The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy where Arthur Dent, lying in the mud in front of his doomed house, tells the relevant council officer how it was only the previous day that he had discovered the scheduled demolition of his home:
'But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.'
'Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them had you? I mean like actually telling anybody or anything.'
'But the plans were on display...'
'On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.'
'That's the display department.'
'With a torch.'
'Ah, well the lights had probably gone.'
'So had the stairs.'
'But look, you found the notice didn't you?'
'Yes,' said Arthur, 'yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filed cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.'
I couldn't help but think of this today when telling someone about the Byzantine procedures of the University of Manchester, and how so many ones which are of importance to students are tucked away in the Staff part of the website -- access to them is not denied to students, it's just not advertised. It's as though the University doesn't want its students to know the way things are supposed to be done.

'Hanlon's Razor,' replied my Laconic friend.

You've heard the saying 'Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity,' I presume? Well, it seems that this sage bit of advice is known as Hanlon's Razor. It takes its name from one Robert J. Hanlon who in 1980 proposed this 'law' to a book compiling various jokes based on Murphy's Law, which you must know.

Curiously, both the name and substance of Hanlon's Razor seem to have been foreshadowed in Robert A. Heinlein's 1941 novella The Logic of Empire, where one character observes to another, 'You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.' What has since been termed Heinlein's Razor, so, builds on Hanlon's Razor but adds an important coda: 'Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don't rule out malice.' Of course, you might wonder what exactly the difference is between incompetence and malice.

Grey's Law, another one of these 'laws' that seem to blossom on the internet -- and no, I have no idea who Grey is, and it seems that nobody else does either! -- is a necessary corollary to Hanlon's Razor and states that 'Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.'

Take a look at my posts on University Procedures. Evans and Gill, the authors of Universities & Students: A Guide to Rights, Responsibilities & Practical Remedies, take pains to state that they don't see Universities as being run maliciously. On the contrary, they go out of their way to give universities the benefit of the doubt:
Universities are complex societies and not easy to run well and they do not have a good record for seeing their way clearly through the ordering of priorities. From a students'-eye position that is alarming, for the individual student is in a weak and precarious position. [...]

The fault lies for the most part not in lack of goodwill, but in lack of training, expertise and sheer awareness of the obligations upon providers of higher education, and lack of funding to enable universities to put their house in order in this area.
In other words, Evans and Gill are firmly of the opinion that most of the time when Universities screw a student over they do so through incompetence rather than malice. Whether that's really an acceptable excuse in an organisation that supposedly gathers together all manner of highly intelligent people is a point that's probably best set aside.

Where Grey's Law comes into play here is to recognise that such incompetence can reach a point where it might as well be malice.

The effects of incompetence are identical to those of malice, of course, but there's more to it than that. A willingness to tolerate such incompetence, while often driven by nothing more dynamic than laziness or arrogant complacency, can often be tantamount to wilful negligence, and this can easily move what might previously have been mere stupidity into the realm of malice.

In some respects, I think this relates to what Aristotle says about how actions which are carried out in ignorance or under compulsion should only be considered truly involuntary if -- on reflection -- their perpetrators regret and repent of their deeds. Failure to repudiate such acts suggests that they weren't really against the wills of the perpetrators, and that they might as well have been acting voluntarily.

There are times when I think that the Nicomachean Ethics was the thing I'm most glad I studied as an undergrad.


Cuitlamiztli Carter said...

I have that Murphy's Law book somewhere - it was given by my father to my mother early in their marriage.

Superman once said of the well-intentioned incompetent that "their hearts were in the right place, if not their minds."

You may be aware that Grey's Law is a play on one of Clarke's Laws that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Cuitlamiztli Carter said...

Whoops, didn't see your more recent post about Clarke. Sorry about that!