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.
- 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?
- 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.)
- 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?