The Baker’s Dilemma – A Parable

In a small village there was a bakery shop. Its owner had inherited the bakery from his father, who had inherited it from his father before him.

It was not the only bakery in the village, but it was well known. It baked breads of all sorts, styles, and sizes, and pastries, too. But it was mostly known for its breads. Its products were well liked, and its baker was well respected in the village since anyone could remember.

One particular day, the baker began early in the morning as was his usual habit, prepared his large wood fired brick oven and began to make the dough for the day’s breads. Grains and flour were selected and the yeast, eggs, salt, and milk added just as he remembered.

The dough was set aside in a warm place to rise, covered with a moist cloth to protect it and prevent it from drying.

When the oven temperature was right, the coals were pushed aside and the oven floor made ready.

When each dough had risen and reached its desired size, he took it from its bowl, placed it on the floured table and began carefully to knead it. When it was ready, he cut the large dough into smaller portions and formed each of these into perfectly shaped loaves and cut them with a knife on the top in the special way that noted each loaf grain and type.

When enough loaves had been prepared, he placed them on a wooden paddle, opened the oven, and slid each loaf onto the oven floor, pushing it carefully into position for the best temperature. Then he noted the time on the clock.

When the right amount of time had passed, he checked the loaves for color and firmness, then removed them and paced them on a cooling rack. When they had properly cooled, he carefully stacked each loaf on an open display rack.

When it was time for the shop to open, customers were already lined up outside. They entered into the aroma filled shop, mingled and chatted, made their selections for the day, and headed home.

An hour or so later, while customers were still streaming into the shop to buy, other customers began to return to speak to the baker.

“There’s something wrong with my loaves of bread! They are not completely baked!”

“There are lumps in my loaves!”

“My loaves don’t taste right! My family won’t eat them!”

For a moment the baker was puzzled. He thought, “I didn’t notice anything amiss. I did everything as I have always done, so I should be getting what I’ve always gotten!”

Then he realized that his shop was also full of customers who hadn’t yet purchased bread for the day.

He spoke up boldly, “There’s nothing wrong with the bread! I made it from the same grains, in the same oven, in the same way I’ve always made it! Something must have happened when you took it home! What did you do differently?”

Of course, arguments ensued. And got more heated. And then those customers left. And then the customers who had not yet purchased left also.

And the shop was empty.

The baker was still puzzled. And still angry.

Loaf by loaf he cut off samples and tasted them.

“They don’t taste right! And this loaf is lumpy! And this loaf is not completely baked!”

“It must be the oven!” So he ran to check the oven. The coals were still hot, and the temperature just right.

“It must be the flour!” So he ran and checked each of the flours, and they were fine.

“It must be the yeast!” So he took out the yeast and checked it, and the yeast was fine.

“It must be the clock!” But the clock read the right time.

This left him in a horrible dilemma:

If it wasn’t the oven,

and it wasn’t the flours,

and it wasn’t the yeast,

and it wasn’t the clock,

What on earth could it be?

He was left with only one question, and one that was very repugnant:

“What if it was something I did?”

He rejected the question because he quickly realized that just considering it might lead to the obvious but very Repugnant Conclusion:

“Something I did actually contributed to the situation!”

So, unable to find another answer to his dilemma, he grumbled and complained the rest of the day.

And all the while, his shop was empty.


In a crisis, typically, one’s first reaction is to fix the blame (Not to identify and fix the problem).

If we eliminate all of the obvious culprits, what remains? (The unseen, or the ignored)

If all of the obvious culprits are just inanimate things, then what remains? (Us)

What can cause unintended consequences to occur? (Missing information, poor decisions, complacency, fear – all of which involve choices)

The real Repugnant Conclusion

Yes, there is one named that. It applies to “real” debates in philosophy and ethics dealing with different groups of people (subcultures) and their “happiness.” It also is known as the mere addition paradox. Both labels concern the “incompatibility of assertions about the relative value of populations (subcultures of people).”

The mere addition paradox arises from faulty (and incomplete) reasoning, for instance, as in this simple example: take a population of 100 people who control $100 in resources. Their average wealth per person is $1. If you add one person to this group who has wealth of $10,000, then the average wealth per person statistically becomes $10,100 spread over 101 people, or $100. Apparent average wealth (and a shift away from poverty, which apparently means towards “happiness”) has drastically increased, but in reality nothing has changed for the original 100 people.

Interestingly, the inverse mere subtraction paradox is even more informative. In an unequal society, such as the 101 people above, simply eliminating the rich and their resources technically would result in a more equal world at a lower resource level, but still nothing would improve for the poor. This raises questions over whether or not “inequality” is the correct or only issue to consider. (Take, for instance, blaming the upper 1% (or 20%) for income inequality. Or once again offering a tax break to treat a symptom rather than addressing the actual issue – 80% of people cannot adequately manage their finances and don’t feel competent to teach their children.)

If we must then consider other “issues,” what issues are there? Apparently, these should be those that are previously unseen or ignored. Following this path inevitably leads to the Real Repugnant Conclusion:

That each of us, as individuals or a group, is responsible for contributing a non-zero but measurable contribution to the undesirable situations we find ourselves in.

What is the most difficult source to accept as a contributor to unintended and undesirable consequences? (Ourselves)

For reasons of insecurity, self-protection, defensiveness, or simply saving face, we very often refuse to ask the Repugnant Question. And to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion, we shift the blame. Or we label it as Politically Incorrect.

Consider the behavior in each of the following (and identify the unseen contributor):

-Two siblings arguing; “Mom! He hit me!”

-Husband and wife arguing; “You started it when you …”

-You are driving and suddenly experience road rage directed at you …

-Your culturally accepted behavior causes “social rage” from another cultural group …

-Your “leadership” behavior causes “rage” (disruption) from employees, upper management, shareholders, customers, or the public …

-Your nation is viewed negatively by the world when “we’re just doing what we’ve always done” …

The real Repugnant Conclusion is the one we choose most often to avoid:

That something I/we have done (my/our behavior) has contributed to an undesirable outcome.

Notice another paradox: this chosen avoidance behavior cascades upwards – it begins with individual behavior (often in childhood) and moves upwards to family, to peers, to clan, to tribe, to community (subculture, a social neighborhood or Dunbar “bubble”), to organizations, to nations.

It’s also like a pandemic – the behavior spreads rapidly within a given population (a Regression to the Cultural Mean).

The situation is not, however, hopeless. Behavior can always be changed, especially old ingrained behavior. But this change is a choice; it is an intentional, and often demanding process.

Change begins with self (you, the individual) and progresses through what we can call the Five R’s:

  1. Recognition, that your behavior contributed to an undesirable outcome
  2. Regret, that the outcome negatively affected others, not only you
  3. Resolution, making a decision, a choice to change
  4. Renewal, of the Attitudes that by Choice lead to your Behaviors (here), and ultimately
  5. Redemption/Restoration, (of position, esteem, performance, self-worth)

Where could you begin today?

And, being an agent of influence, who would you influence tomorrow?

About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 10: Integrity, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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