For a homework assignment, I am to apply Kantian ethics (the categorical imperative) to a concrete question. I purposely do not mention the actual homework problem in this question; this is purely an attempt to better understand the categorical imperative. I have run into some problems answering the question of the assignment, which perhaps point towards my lack of understanding of the subject. Below, I have tried to formulate these problems as best I can.

  1. How do we universalize a maxim? If we have formulated a maxim that, in an ethical decision problem, differentiates between the different possible actions, how precisely does the process of universalization of the maxim work? Consider for example the following situation: I am starving, and I have no "legitimate" way to obtain food. I could steal food to survive. The maxim by which I want to act is, "I may steal food if it is necessary for me to survive". There are, to my understanding, at least two different ways to make this into a "universal" statement, namely "One may steal", and "One may steal if it is necessary for one's survival". Which one of these is the universalization? Why?
  2. Why is Kantian ethics determined? I think of an ethical system as a rule (or function) for assigning to a certain situation paired with a collection of possible actions the one that is right. For the categorical imperative, this would imply, given some situation with possible actions, that (i) there exists a universalizable maxim which rules one action preferable over the others and (ii) that there exists only one such maxim, or at least that all universalizable maxims prefer the same possible action. (If you are a mathematician -- like me -- you might phrase these requirements existence and uniqueness.)
  3. Is it ever possible for utility to play a role in a maxim? For instance, if you are already a utilitarian, the (seemingly fairly universal) maxim "one must act in a way that maximizes (human) utility" certainly seems reasonable enough; but this reduces the categorial imperative to utalitarianism. Why is this not an example of a correct universal maxim; or, on what Kantian grounds can one reject this as one?

1 Answer 1


Welcome to the site. I'll try to answer your questions and we'll hope somebody who's more expert about Kant comes along to improve my responses.

  1. I would ask this question this way, "What counts as the maxim upon which I am acting for the purpose of the universalizability test?" In general, remember that for Kant a maxim is an action plus an intention--not just "I steal" but "I steal because it is the only way for me to survive." That's the answer to question 1 as you've asked it. However, there's another problem lurking in the wings that you may also have in your mind. Kant himself doesn't seem to think that it's that hard to tell what the intention is because he doesn't give us explicit rules for how to determine what the right way to describe the maxim is, but he seems too confident about that. Elizabeth Anscombe and her followers call this The Problem of Relevant Description. Suppose that I see that a man I hate is about to commit a murder, and I shoot him to prevent him killing an innocent person. Is my action the murder of my hated rival, or the protection of an innocent? What kind of action my action was seems to depend on my intention in acting, but it seems like my behavior is completely consistent with two very different interpretations of my intentions.

  2. "existence" and "uniqueness" are exactly right. Kant, like Mill, thinks that ethics is decidable, every moral problem has exactly 1 correct resolution, which is provided by the universalizability test. The reasons that he thinks this are because he wants morality to be universal (commanding the same act of every person, at all times, in all places, etc.), necessary (it isn't just by chance the case that you should do p--you have to do p, in just the same way that 2+2 have to = 4.) and a priori (discovered as a necessary condition of having moral experience at all, not learned through habit or from particular chance events). If moralsity is universal, necessary and a priori, then it had better be decidable too.

  3. Mill certainly claims something like this in Utilitarianism but it isn't clear that this is right. For Kant the items that are tested under the universalizibility test are actions+intentions, whereas for the utilitarian, the only things that seem to matter to the morality of the action are the consequences, not the intention of the agent. (There's an important distinction Mill draws between the morality of the act itself, which is determined solely by its consequences and our judgments about character which might take intentions into account.)

Hope this helps.

  • +1 Don't take this this wrong way, but the actual words used here could have been better. That's a minor distraction - the clarity of thought is exceptional. Jun 2, 2014 at 4:08
  • Thank you very much for your thorough response. Regarding (2), am I correct to understand that Kant believes his ethics to be determined because of these intrinsic properties (universal, necessary, a priori), and not because of an "extrinsic" analysis where he considers an arbitrary situation and reasons that an (essentially unique) maxim must exist? And if so, is this an approach shared (mostly) by modern Kantians? Jun 2, 2014 at 22:08
  • I also have a question prompted by your response to (1), but perhaps it is more of a follow-up question: the dilemma I have to discuss is ethical-political, specifically about the allocation of scarce resources. Does the categorical imperative apply here? Or does Kant have a separate approach to political ethics? Jun 2, 2014 at 22:09
  • 1
    @MeesdeVries Yes, for Kant, it's the intrinsic features of the act itself that determine whether it is good or bad. Other deontologists who would share this view would include natural law and divine command ethicists. In response to your follow-up, I think the easiest way to see how the categorical imperative applies to distribution cases is to look at the autonomy formulation. Think of the moral law as giving us a duty to support the autonomy of others.
    – user5172
    Jun 2, 2014 at 23:29
  • @shane I think I understand the difference between consequentialism/deontology, but that that does not address my question. Let me rephrase. My original question was: "(Why) is Kantian ethics determined?". After your answer, I wanted to confirm that I had understood it. My understanding is that Kant says "Morality is universal, necessary, and a priori, and therefore determined". Kant does not say, "The categorical imperative is determined, for consider situation X, then (...argument...) and therefore an (essentially) unique universalizable maxim exists for the decision posed by X". Correct? Jun 3, 2014 at 20:59

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