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The Doing and the Deed: Action in Normative Ethics

  • Constantine Sandis (a1)


This essay is motivated by the thought that the things we do are to be distinguished from our acts of doing them. I defend a particular way of drawing this distinction before proceeding to demonstrate its relevance for normative ethics. Central to my argument is the conviction that certain ongoing debates in ethical theory begin to dissolve once we disambiguate the two concepts of action in question. If this is right, then the study of action should be accorded a far more prominent place within moral philosophy than previously supposed. I end by considering an extension of the above to aesthetic evaluation and, mutatis mutandis, that of our lives in general.

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1 One might additionally distinguish between acts and actions but this wouldn't affect anything I have to say here. For a puzzling attempt to map the act/action distinction onto that between doing and thing done see Wiggins, David, Ethics: Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 97, n.8.

2 For complications that need not detain us here see Hooker, Brad, Ideal Code, Real World (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000) 1, n.2.

3 Anscombe, G. E. M., ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, Philosophy 33 (124) Jan (1958), 19 . Anscombe's own failure to distinguish between doings and things done is a topic for another paper.

4 See Hursthouse, Rosalind, ‘Normative Virtue Ethics’, in (ed.) Crisp, R., How Should One Live? (Oxford University Press, 1996), 1933 .

5 Macmurray, John, ‘What is Action?’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supp. Vol. XVII (1938), 74–6.

6 See White, Alan R., ‘What We Believe’ in (ed.) Rescher, N., Studies in the Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972), 6984 .

7 Ricœur, Paul, From Text to Action, trns. Blamey, K. & Evanston, J. (London: Continuum, 2008 [1986]), 142–9.

8 For the philosophy of what we are doing when we say things, see Mather Saul, Jennifer, Lying, Misleading, and What is Said: An Exploration in the Philosophy of Language and Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

9 For Ricœur's development of Levinas and Derrida's theories of the trace see his La Mémoire, l'Histoire, l'Oubli (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2000).

10 Hornsby, Jennifer, Simple Mindedness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 142.

11 Davidson, Donald, ‘The Logical Form of Action Sentences’ (1967); reprinted in his Essays on Actions & Events, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 105–21.

12 See Glock, Hans-Johann, ‘Truth Without People?’, Philosophy 72 (1997), 98. I discuss the individuation of things done in The Things We Do and Why We Do Them (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 34 & 150.

13 As the narrator of In Search of Lost Time puts it in the volume's closing passage, ‘[t]he places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at the time […] houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years’, Proust, Swann's Way [1913], 513.

14 The Things We Do, 8 & 33.

15 Just as there are different conceptions of the basic distinction between doings and things done, so there are different conceptions of each of the two things distinguished; the latter may differ even when there is agreement on the former.

16 Not everybody conceives of the doing/thing done distinction in even these general terms. For example, H.A. Prichard, G.H. von Wright, and David Charles all think of the thing done as the bodily event that action results in; see Prichard's, Duty and Ignorance of Fact’ (1932) as reprinted in his Moral Writings, (ed.) MacAdam, J. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004, 85), von Wright, G.H. Norm and Action (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, 39) and Charles, D.Processes, Activities and Actions’ in (ed.) Stout, R., Process, Action and Experience (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

17 We could, of course, contract sets of things done to include such details, but not beyond the bounds of generality. For complications to do with properties and descriptions see Davidson, , ‘The Logical Form of Action Sentences’, 106 & ‘Adverbs of Action’ (1985), reprinted in his Essays on Actions & Events, 293304 .

18 Andreas Lind has convinced me that the employment of such biconditionals is often confused with regard to whether they are picking out meanings, right-makers, truth-conditions, etc.

19 Neglected exceptions include D'Arcy's, E. Human Acts: An Essay in their Moral Evaluation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963) and Brown's, D.G. Action (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1968).

20 Prinz, Jesse, The Emotional Construction of Morals (Oxford University Press, 2007), 20.

21 H.A. Prichard, ‘Duty and Ignorance of Fact’, 95, my emphasis. Prichard's view of what sorts of things we are obliged to do would later change radically upon his embracing the conclusion that to act is to perform a mental activity of some kind (viz. to will something); see ‘Acting, Willing, Desiring’ (1945) in his Moral Writings, 272–81.

22 In §5 I argue that Ross makes this point in a strikingly paradoxical manner precisely because he lacks the doing/thing done distinction.

23 Bennett, Jonathan, The Act Itself (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 46, my emphasis.

24 Both are, of course, to be distinguished from doing something in the wrong way or manner, such as when one goes about doing something without the appropriate skill or know-how.

25 Moral particularism might be an exception here, at least if the particularist is willing to distinguish between type and token things done (see §4).

26 I return to the evaluative/deontic distinction in §5.

27 The case of speech-acts in which two people utter the same words but with different meanings highlights a wider truth concerning the significance of all the things we do.

28 See §5.

29 Hence Luke 22:33–4, which could be alluding to multiple actions, from killing the son of God to giving birth to the Christian religion: ‘And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”’

30 The latter view is implicitly endorsed in Parfit's, Derek On What Matters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

31 Nussbaum, Martha C., Philosophical Interventions: 1986–2011 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 269.

32 Swanton, Christine, Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 245.

33 Macmurray and Hornsby are right to claim that in everyday language we typically talk of things done, but as noted in §1 this way of speaking is very loose.

34 Hanser, Matthew, ‘Actions, Acting, and Acting Well’, in (ed.) Shafer-Landau, Russ, Oxford Studies in Metaethics 3 (2008), 272–3. Cf. Clark, Romane, ‘Deeds, Doings and What is Done’, Noûs 23 (2) (1989), 199210 .

35 It should already be clear by now that I don't maintain that doings are processes and/or events.

36 Dancy, Jonathan, ‘Action in Moral Metaphysics’ in (ed.) Sandis, C., New Essays on Action Explanation (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 396ff. Cf. his Action, Content and Inference’ in (eds) Glock, H-J. & Hyman, J., Wittgenstein and Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 278–98.

37 Hursthouse, Rosalind, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 29 & 125.

38 Nagel, Thomas, ‘Moral Luck’, in his Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 146, my emphasis. Nagel explicitly conflates things done with events in The View From Nowhere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, 114) an observation first made in Hornsby, Simple Mindedness, 143–48.

39 Proust, Marcel, Swann's Way [1913], trns. Moncrieff, C.K.S. & Kilmartin, T., rev. d.J. Enright (London: Chatto & Windus 1992), 430, my emphasis. The set of things we do, of course, includes speaking.

40 It is noteworthy that simple descriptions of things done (e.g. ‘lying’) may reveal the agent's intention but not their motive.

41 For independent reasons for thinking that Nagel is guilty of such conflations see Hornsby, Simple Mindedness and Sandis, The Things We Do.

42 Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason [1788]; trns & ed. Gregor, M.J. & Reath, A. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5:147. Yet it is events that have consequences (even if we might ordinarily speak of ‘the things we do’ having consequences).

43 A complication here is that we can of course find evidence for the occurrence of events, which J.L. Austin famously brings close to facts in ‘Unfair to Facts’ (1954), reprinted in his Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), 154–74. Those who follow Austin in this critique of P.F. Strawson may prove more inclined to identify things done, and not doings, with events of some kind (see note 15). It should by now be clear that I think that while this temptation should be resisted, we would do equally well to avoid conflating one's doing x with the event of one's doing x (it only being sensible to apply moral properties to the former).

44 Other translations have variants of judge, reward, or render to everyone according to their ‘deeds’ (King James) or ‘works’ (English Standard Version), the latter being the more accurate translation of the Greek ‘ἔργα’ and the Hebrew found in many of the Old Testament Parallels (Job 34:11, Psalm 62:12, Proverbs 24:1, Ecclesiastes 3:17, Jeremiah 17:10, and Ezekiel 18:20 & 36:19; cf. Exodus 32:34).

45 For a deflationist interpretation of what Kant means by the motive of duty see O'Neill, Onora, ‘Kantian Ethics’ in (ed.) Singer, P., A Companion to Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 183.

46 Mill, J.S., Utilitarianism, 1863 (London: Parker, Son & Bourn), 1820 . This is in tension with those aspects of Mill's philosophy that seem to require actions to be events with causes and effects.

47 Hegel famously talks of the history's progress from the ancient ethical concern with pure objective deed (Tat) to the modern interest in the subjective element of action (Handlung). For how this relates to my concerns in this paper see my The Man Who Mistook his Handlung for a Tat’, Bulletin of the Hegel Society of Great Britain 62 (2010), 3560 .

48 Cf. Scanlon, T.M. Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame (New Jersey: Harvard University Press, 2008), esp. 122–7 & 151–9.

49 Audi, Robert, The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 133.

50 I don't claim that this way of carving things up is the only one true to the facts, just that it does a better explanatory job than its competitors.

51 Cf. Mulligan, Kevin, ‘From Appropriate Emotions to Values’, The Monist 81 (1) (1988), 161–88, and Tappolet, Christine, ‘Evaluative Vs. Deontic Concepts’, The International Encyclopedia of Ethics (2013).

52 Peter Geach argues that we should jettison the concept of right action and make do with talk of good and bad acts, which was good enough for Aquinas ( Geach, P.T., ‘Good and Evil’, Analysis 1 (7) (1956), 41ff.) His illustrations, however, betray a conflation of deeds with doings.

53 But see note 33 above.

54 Ross, W.D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), 132ff.

55 Littlejohn, Clayton, Justification and the Truth Connection (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 5. Cf. White, , ‘What We Believe’, & Catherine Lowy, ‘Gettier's Notion of Justification’, Mind 87 (1978), 105–8. A further question (an analogue of which appears in my discussion of Harman further below) is whether the person's being justified to have the belief that p is identical to her believing that p being justified.

56 Harman, Gilbert, Explaining Value and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 67 .

57 Perhaps it neither was nor wasn't right of me to do so.

58 Williams, Bernard, Shame and Necessity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 6870 & Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984),34.

59 See my Motivated by the Gods’, in (eds) Buckareff, A., Moya, C., & Rosell, S., Agency and Responsibility (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), §3.

60 Macmurray, John, Persons in Relation (London: Faber & Faber, 1961), 11.

61 Davies, David, Art as Performance (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). For insightful critical overviews of attempts to capture something similar by distinguishing the phenomenology of making art from that of spectating see Crowell, Steven, ‘Phenomenology and aesthetics; or why art matters’ in (ed.) Parry, J., Art and Phenomenology (London: Routledge, 2011), 3153 and Kirkpatrick, Kate, ‘Beneath the Surface: Whose Phenomenology? Which Art?’, in (eds) Nelstrop, L. & Appleton, H. Mysticism and Art (London: Routledge, 2017).

62 Rosenberg, Harold, ‘The American Action Painters’ in his The Tradition of the New (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1960), 26–8. In his Preface to the book Rosenberg nonetheless talks of art in terms of ‘things made’ which he contrasts with ‘deeds done’.

63 Marks which sell for grotesque amounts of money, but this arguably only serves to illustrate our fetishistic attachment to unique souvenirs such as the original reels of music or film. See Sandis, ConstantineAn Honest Display of Fakery’, in (eds) Harrison, V., Kemp, G. & Bergqvist, A., Philosophy and Museums: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Ontology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 19 .

64 As quoted in Rosenberg's Preface referring to ‘her generous review of this book’.

65 Victor Dura-Vila reminded me that aesthetics places no value in the artistic analogue of a ‘pure will’. To this extent, all art theory is on Mill's side. There remains, nonetheless, the Collingwoodian understanding of art as the imaginative creation, Principles of Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938), 128–34. Cf. Croce, Benedetto, Aesthetic: As Science of Expression and General Linguistic, trns. Ainslee, D. (London: Macmillan).

66 Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power [1886], trns. Kaufmann, Walter (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), §853, IV.

67 Nehamas, Alexander, Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 188. See also Simpson, Zachary, Life as Art: Aesthetics and the Creation of the Self (London: Roman & littlefield, 2012).

68 Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialism is a Humanism, trns. Macomber, C. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007 [1945]),37.

69 Dworkin, Ronald, Justice for Hedgehogs (Boston, NJ: Harvard University Press, 2011), 197. Note the allusion to Wittgenstein's famous rhetorical question, what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?’, Philosophical Investigations, trns. Anscombe, G.E.M. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953), §621.

70 The theological implications are nicely brought out in Kirkpatrick, ‘Beneath the Surface’.

71 As with soup and things done, we can talk of things produced as either repeatables or particulars. P.F. Strawson writes: ‘We should be able to speak of the same painting being seen by different people in different places at one time, in just the same way in which we now speak of the same sonata being heard by different people at different times in one place’. Strawson, , ‘Aesthetic Appraisal and Works of Art’, The Oxford Review, no.3 (1966], reprinted in his Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2008), 202. I concur, but leave it for another day to quibble over whether Pierre Menard's Don Quixote could have ever been an identical work to that of Cervantes.

72 This does not preclude the possibility of better understanding the things we do and create by situating them within the normative contexts of their production. For the convoluted question of what, if anything, it is to understand an act or artwork, see my If an Artwork Could Speak’, in (ed.) Hagberg, G., Wittgenstein on Aesthetic Understanding (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

73 I have subjected audiences in Cardiff, Grenoble, London, Helsinki, Hertfordshire, Montréal, Norwich, Oxford, Tartu, Turku, Wolverhampton, and Valencia to earlier versions of this material and am grateful to all of them for their comments and questions. I'd like to also thank Joseph Almog, Louise R. Chapman, Rémi Clot-Goudard, Meena Dhanda, Victor Dura-Vila, James Garvey, Naomi Goulder, Kate Kirkpatrick, Andreas Lind, Elijah Millgram, Danièle Moyal-Sharrock, Henry Mulhall, Luke Mulhall, Sarah Stroud, Christine Tappolet, and Susanne Uusitalo for helpful suggestions and discussions.


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