The Benevolence of the Butcher

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

   -Adam Smith, 1776, An Inquiry into the Nature and Sources of the Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith was describing how free markets work. No one knows everything. But each individual can make calculations based on what they do know. Those individual choices make markets work efficiently.  Adam Smith recognized that individual self-interest can optimize personal happiness and social well-being.

We can see a corollary of this principle in the dojo. Each person is there because it benefits them to be there. By pursuing their own aims each member furthers the objectives of everyone else there. There will be competition. There will be inequality of ability, effort and reward. But everyone in the room can benefit from the heat and pressure of training in the company of like-minded people. Everyone benefits from the skill, determination and vitality of everyone around them.

But in that corollary, we can spot the unexpressed proviso in Adam Smith’s famous quote. Because in the dojo, butcher, brewer, baker or otherwise, we all depend on one another’s benevolence. Not in the sense that everyone should be pleasant. Not in the sense that we are acting somehow against our own interests to altruistically serve the interests of the others. Hardly.

But in the sense that we all know the rules of the dojo and tacitly or expressly agree to conform to them. In dojo training we stop a technique before it will cause injury. We follow the instructor’s directions. We enter on time and leave when finished. And on and on, each of us following the procedures, techniques, training methods, customs, language, roles and the cultural framework which makes training orderly and productive for all of us.

If those rules are set aside, there is no more training, and no more development. If people attacked each other at will, if people ignored the instructor’s guidance, if passivity and brutality were equally okay, there would be nothing.

In this way we depend on the benevolence of even our toughest rivals, our most challenging training partners: we can trust their willingness to follow the rules of the game. Their self-control makes it possible for us to make the most of our training.

If the butcher, the brewer or the baker used threats and lies to further their interests the market would cease to exist. If they appealed to conspiracy, deception and force – what gangs, raiders and hegemons all use to get their way – market intelligence would be irrelevant. Everyone becomes needy and fearful. For a functioning society we do depend on the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer and the baker.

To work well markets and dojos require respect for other people. Efficient and benevolent social relations require us to honor our word and to accept the conventions of morality – whether motivated by the prospect of shame in being exposed for a breech of trust, the fear of being found guilty of a violation of law, or restrained by our own virtue, knowing well the reward of decency in this life and the next.

These factors promote the benevolence of all parties in the group – in the dojo or the market – even as we all pursue our own interests.

Without the rules, we have chaos. Then instead of creating value, value drains away. Instead of increasing our skill and strength, they erode. Instead of order and the pursuit of happiness we have decline, abuse and despair. No matter how hard we push each other, how tough, strong, skilled, dedicated and clever we are, we all depend on the benevolence of one another.

This is not something that can be taken for granted. As martial artists we use these values in the dojo. If we can inspire this and apply this in the wider world, that is a good result of dojo practice.  

We do depend on the benevolence of the butcher. When we cannot there is trouble.


Post by Jeffrey Brooks, Mountain Karate, Saluda, NC, Yamabayashi Ryu Karate Dojo, author of The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts and The Rhinoceros Tale – Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom. Post copyright © 2022 Jeffrey Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, LLC.

Photo by Thao Le Hoan via Pexels

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