Making Policy: ‘law therapy’

‘Act as if the maxim [guiding principle] of your action were to become, through your will, a universal law of nature.’

Immanuel Kant (The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals 1785)                                                                                                                                          


This is from the first formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. To paraphrase Kant, you can decide how to act as a matter of policy (through an act of reason) that is as compelling as a natural law. This would lead to an absolute, unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and was self legislated. The German philosopher Kant (1724-1804) was in disagreement with the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) who said that good people did what gave them a good feeling. Hence, feelings were the main impetus to do good actions.

The problem with following Hume’s ideas is that very often feelings are not inclined to be motivating to a positive act and often a behaviour change is required before a bad feeling will shift. The value of following Kant’s premise is that reason can lead to a decision to set down a policy which can be regarded as a law to be followed in all circumstances. We can regard this as a compelling personal law rather than a universal law of nature. We don’t often think about whether to obey or not a law laid down by Parliament. We generally automatically obey them on autopilot without having to examine every action from first principles. So, we don’t think about whether we feel like speeding or not, we just focus on the speed limit. We may feel angry about something but generally we don’t break legal restrictions in how we express that feeling. Laws are guidelines for action without having to overanalyse or consult our feelings. Similarly, in our private lives policies can be set to construct our own personal set of laws. These should be written down,dated and signed to concretise them. This is the way to convert policy into personal law with the strength of ritual. There may be value in signing off on a personal law daily if a recency effect is necessary. The status of law helps to set a frame of reference to defend against impulsive behaviour. For example setting a law against eating chocolate today will act as a brake in the supermarket. The same applies to any addictive behaviour. You can reward yourself for maintaining the desired behaviour in ways you choose. The consequence of not upholding your chosen law is to lose that reward and make efforts to re-assess and regroup.

Many of our policies are implicit. That is, we don’t need to think about whether  we feel like cleaning our teeth at night; washing our clothes; putting the rubbish out; cleaning the house; ironing our clothes; picking children up from school, etc. If it is needed we just do it without a philosophical enquiry and decision about policy. The value of making some EXPLICIT decision that DOES result from enquiry, and then concretely set down as policy, is that desired and positive outcome is not left to chance and circumstance.This is our own private law to instruct action to achieve certain goals. This can be regarded as law therapy. Your law needs to be plausible, realistic, and achievable. This allows you to be responsible and accountable. Your accountability militates against learned helplessness and is empowering. This is because you can take action to realistically fine tune your policy and be informed by what you decide to do progressively in your particular situation.

 So, if you have decided not to smoke, the circumstances or how you feel can be disregarded. Your policy can be followed automatically without reconsideration. This is the nature of personal law. If you have decided to limit your drinking to a certain number, it doesn’t depend on the occasion or the company. There is automatic cut off. No thinking to be done. Sometimes what is unwanted may be wanted at a deeper, perhaps unconscious level. Then there is value in setting law to limit duration of episodes of conflicted behaviour to gain a sense of control. Psychotherapy may be valuable also to resolve such matters. If you have decided to value yourself in the face of criticism from others or some internalised critic, you automatically remember your decision and policy to give yourself value. This is valuable in fighting low self esteem and depressive feelings. There are two types of self esteem. One is conditional and earned through good performance.The other type is unconditional, it comes with being a living form in the universe and is spiritual. Gaining this only depends on you DECIDING to take it and give it to yourself and others. No earning or performance is necessary. This is the biggest element of self esteem in your bedrock. Performances are always ephemeral. One day a rooster, next day a feather duster. Your POLICY can be DECIDED to allow unconditional self esteem in perpetuity regardless of internal or external critics. At the same time, you can strive for excellence at various skills. However, the level of skill achieved does not have to affect acceptance of self and others at a fundamental level.

Treating depression has many facets including medication if required..There are also many other psycho-social and physical  treatments. Very important amongst them, you can have a policy of exercising whether you feel like it or not. If you want to feel better you need to behave differently first. No thought is required if you have no physical illness that requires limiting exercise. Just do it according to your policy. Similarly, if you have a law not to suicide, you will not act on such thoughts or feelings but, instead, take yourself to a place of safety.  One good support option, not often recognised, to combat depression and low self esteem may be to join a public speaking club. Public speaking clubs also aid personal development. They are  one of the hidden gold mines for self improvement in our community. Benefit is best achieved by active participation. Even if you are scared you can have a policy for volunteering quickly and automatically when opportunities to speak arise. You can have a policy to raise your hand quickly instead of debating ‘will I, won’t I ? ‘ and losing the opportunity.

There are numerous opportunities for policy making in your life. They may be as simple as smiling more often, giving compliments to yourself and others, rising from bed by a certain time, and taking more moments to reflect on your process during the day. Replace wishful thinking  and a prayer for action with firm policy for action to facilitate wanted change. Make it law.

For those finding the above too wordy, the take home message is :

1. Ritualise your policy into law by writing it down, signing and dating it.

2. Just do it.

If you require the services of a Perth Psychologist or Perth Counsellor, please contact me at