Apotheosis episode 46: Aristotle and the art of deliberation. Hand-drawn image of Rodin's statue, "The Thinker" with rays of various colors emanating from the statue's head.

Episode 46: Aristotle and the art of deliberation

Ryan D Thompson Decision-making, Hellenism, Perspectives, Skills

Key ideas

We humans are far less rational than we’d like to believe. Even very smart people make all kinds of bad decisions. Aristotle’s rules for deliberation still serve as a practical method to slow down, clarify thinking, and improve decision-making.

  • Aesop’s classic fable of the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs conveys an issue at the heart of human society: we can be really bad at decision-making. We often make decisions that satisfy a craving in the short term but at the expense of the long term.
  • Recognizing our tendency toward poor decision-making, Aristotle devised an approach over 2300 years ago to help make better decisions. Modern-day scholar Edith Hall presents his rules for deliberation, which offer us a systematic framework for making better decisions. 
  • These rules include slowing down the decision-making process, ensuring that we incorporate the perspectives of everyone affected by the decision, considering the range of possible outcomes, and other insightful considerations.
  • Employing a systematic approach like this helps us to counter some of the biases and mental shortcuts that can lead us toward bad choices. With these methods, may you conserve your golden gooses for many years to come!


A man and his wife had the great fortune to possess a goose that laid a golden egg. Every day, they would wake up to find the goose had laid yet another golden egg. Despite their tremendous luck, though, they soon become dissatisfied. Surely the goose could lay more eggs. One egg was no longer enough to sustain their growing need for luxury. 

The couple figured that the goose must be made of gold on its insides to be able to produce the golden eggs. So they made the decision to cut open the goose. Alas, the goose’s guts were just like every other goose’s guts. And so the goose died, and the couple lost their golden goose.

In this story, it’s easy to see the foolishness of the couple. They fail to see the obvious: that they have a good thing on their hands, if only they take care of it. Their greed leads them to destroy the one thing that essentially guarantees their wellbeing for years to come. If only they had stopped for five minutes to contemplate a few scenarios for their golden goose, it seems clear they would have soon realized that keeping it alive was the better course of action.

Their lack of deliberation led to them losing their greatest possession. 

It’s easy to realize how bad a decision is when observing other people. The trick is to cultivate the capacity to assess the quality of our own decisions. Fortunately, we have some great mentors through the millennia to guide us.

This episode is part of a series on decision-making. I’m going to explore some insights from one of the oldest documented methodologies for making rational decisions: Aristotle’s rules of deliberation. One of the founding fathers of Western intellectual thought, Aristotle devised a set of rules that can guide us to make better decisions.

Roughly 200 years before Aristotle, though, another Ancient Greek named Aesop collected another form of wisdom – a book of fables with moral lessons. Aesop wrote – or at least made famous – the fable of the goose that laid the golden egg. The moral of the fable is straightforward enough: that an insatiable desire for "more, more more" can backfire, leaving us with less.

But like many of the insights from ancient wisdom traditions, simple isn’t always easy. Even though we might have heard these stories a thousand times, it doesn’t mean we’ve embodied their lessons. 

For example, on a societal level, we can see the golden goose as the natural world that sustains us. For the past few centuries, humans have accelerated their exploitation of the world’s resources, hungry for the “golden egg” that nature provides. The planet’s resources could easily sustain the human race for thousands more years to come, just as it has sustained our ancestors for millennia. But in our greed for more, we are in the process of gutting our golden goose. As of 2023, we would need 1.7 planet earths to meet our insatiable demand, according to research for Earth Overshoot Day — the date each year that we have exceeded the amount of ecological resources the planet is able to produce that year. 

Sacrificing a golden goose is only one of many ways that we can make ill-conceived decisions. Whether in global politics, non-profit work, business, or in our own lives, we benefit from enhancing our capacity for making better decisions.

Which brings us back to Aristotle, whose rational thinking has guided decision-makers for over two thousand years.

Edith Hall, a professor of classics at Durham University in England, captured many of Aristotle’s practical insights in her book Aristotle’s Way. In her book, she presents his 10 rules for deliberation, which offer us a systematic framework for realizing our goals. As she describes, these rules of deliberation can help us to navigate uncertainty and plan for the future – at least in situations in which we can exert some form of control.

Aristotle’s 10 rules are as follows:

First, don’t deliberate in haste. We should avoid impulsive decisions. Aristotle encouraged taking our time, delaying decision-making until we have done our due diligence, so to speak, on gathering information. Now I think this is also a good opportunity to apply another of Aristotle’s important insights: finding the mean between extremes. While on one hand, we don’t want to rush into decisions, we also don’t want to spend forever making a decision and get locked into analysis paralysis. As is often the case, deciding how much or how little time requires discernment.

Second, verify all information. I wonder, what would Aristotle think of this Age of Misinformation? We have access to more information than anyone in the ancient world might have ever conceived. And yet, the quality of that information is often garbage. At the least, we should make some effort to verify the credibility of the source of the information we’re using. It also helps to triangulate with multiple sources.

Third, consult – and listen to – an expert advisor. If you have health issues, clearly you are better off talking to a doctor than your cousin Frank – unless of course your cousin also happens to be a doctor. Regardless of the situation, we are better off seeking out advice from people who have dedicated years of their lives understanding that topic. There are always complications about expert advice, of course. What do we do when two experts have convergent views? This situation also calls for discernment and perhaps some further research to “break the tie.”

Fourth, try to understand the perspectives of all parties involved. Who are the people or groups that will be affected by the decision? What do they stand to gain or lose? Who will suffer if things go wrong, and how severely? Everyone involved will have their own reasons for or against a decision. Even opposing reasons might be perfectly reasonable from the standpoint of that person. The skill of being able to consider these disparate views is not one that comes easy and doesn’t seem all that common. But it certainly pays to cultivate this skill of understanding multiple perspectives.

Fifth, try to understand similar cases from your own life or that have happened to others. We should look back on any past situations that bear resemblance to the current situation. In the book Principles for Life and Work, Ray Dalio describes how he used his library of principles to build one of the most valuable hedge funds in the world. He asks a question like, “is this situation something I’ve seen before?” When we haven’t encountered a similar situation in our own lives, we benefit from seeking out information from others who have.

Sixth, consider the variety and likelihood of possible outcomes — and then prepare yourself for any outcomes that might occur. We often start a project with a rosy view of the future, tricking ourselves into thinking our plan is foolproof. Or perhaps you’re inclined towards a more pessimistic view. Either way, we are missing out on a plethora of potential directions a project might take. We should be wary of “either/or” situations: “either this happens or the opposite thing happens.” Whenever we notice this binary, we can take that as a sign we’re missing something. And then brace yourself for the range of impacts, whether good or bad. 

Seventh, consider the impact of luck. As Edith Hall describes, Aristotle’s inclusion of luck or randomness sets him apart from other thinkers on decision-making. As they say in the military, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Part of that comes down to the potential for sheer bad luck to completely derail your carefully constructed plan. Thus, we should brainstorm as many possible bad luck scenarios and do our best to prepare for those unfortunate setbacks.

Eighth, don’t drink and deliberate. Yep, that is a legit principle from Aristotle. It seems this is a hard-to-learn lesson for humankind. I’d wager that through the centuries, many significant decisions have been set in motion following an evening of heavy drinking. No doubt that countless makers of drunken decisions have woken up with dread, thinking, “oh no, please tell me I didn’t actually…” 

Now, on the flip side of that principle, Hall describes the Persian method of decision-making, which in fact involved a fair amount of intoxication. However, they had a clever process to mitigate the risks of drunken decisions. While sober, they would gather all the facts and deliberate on them. Then they’d brainstorm and bounce around new ideas while drunk. And finally, they’d make the final decision while sober. 

In a similar light, I saw an infographic many years ago that made a compelling case for the benefits of both alcohol and caffeine as a power duo. Drinking beer in moderation, for example, can lead to good ideas. But a cup of coffee is a far better beverage to help us execute those ideas.

Aristotle’s last two rules of deliberation can be ignored, as these betray the unfortunate reality of his era as well as his own flaws and biases. The ninth rule said that slaves are unable to deliberate, and the tenth, that “women and deliberation don’t mix.” Unfortunately, these kinds of views have been passed down through the centuries, leading to suffering and exploitation on one hand and a suppression of many vital ideas and perspectives on the other hand.

Casting aside these last two, Aristotle’s rules offer a highly practical, systematic means of improving our decision-making prowess. Some of these rules might seem like common sense. True enough — but we humans also display a remarkable capacity to ignore common sense when under pressure. So having a practical methodology like this can help us to mitigate some of the biases and blind spots I covered in the last episode.

In the next episode, we’ll go a bit deeper into that idea, featuring some of the Buddha’s earliest insights on how to choose a life that leads to well-being.

In the meantime, I hope that your decision-making skills get a boost from Aristotle’s method. Until the next time, be well!  


Aristotle’s Way by Edith hall

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License