Doing and Making

“Doing something” is closely related to “making something.” In some languages one word is used for both, as in Latin facere means both “to do” and “to make.” Even in English, various idiomatic expressions bring the two together, as in “doing the dishes,” “doing my homework,” and the like, where the person is both doing something, and making something, namely clean dishes or completed homework. Similarly, expressions like “making love” and “making out” actually refer more to doing something than to making or causing anything.

Nonetheless, the two are not equivalent. Doing, at least in relation to human beings, generally contains the idea of an action which is chosen, either directly, as we spoke about actions like walking to the door or opening it, or indirectly, through a series of such actions, in the way that the action of “going for a walk” would involve many such actions. Making, on the other hand, is roughly equivalent to efficient causality, and the effect is considered the thing which is made. Anyone who does something, of course, also causes or makes various things in the world, but it is not the same to say that he is doing something and that he is causing something.


12 thoughts on “Doing and Making

  1. It seems that “doing” is related to the object of the action – that which we are thinking of when we act, and consequently that which determines the type of action. Generally, we are morally responsible for what we “do”, not what we “make” (inasmuch as this making is not itself the object, or part of the object).

    However, we can sometimes be considered culpable for unintentionally “making” something – as when a child “makes a mess”, though this was not the object of their action. The child should have taken more care in considering what their action would make. In a more extreme example, those who support abortion claim that they do not believe they are killing anything, as a fetus is not alive – their object is not killing, but rather performing a certain health procedure. Those who oppose abortion frequently believe that even such actions are morally punishable, perhaps because of some kind of willful ignorance of the life of the fetus on the part of the abortionist – and that the “making” of a dead child is still highly relevant, though the “doing” is not murder.

    How do we morally relate the consequences (“making”) of an action to its object (“doing”)? Do we have a good way to tell when someone “should have known” what their action would produce, though their object was benign? Are there general principles for properly considering the unintentional consequences of our actions?


    • When we morally evaluate someone else’s action, typically we aren’t just saying “this is what they thought they were doing.” Nor are we saying “this is what they objectively were doing”; in a certain sense there is no such thing as what they “objectively” were doing. We are talking about describing an action in one way or another, and both of those descriptions are objectively true. Rather, in this sort of situation, we are saying something like, “a reasonable person, considering that action, would have described it to themselves in such and such a way.”

      So in the abortion discussion, when the person says “what I am doing is a health procedure,” and someone else says, “you are killing a baby,” the second person does not mean that the first person thinks this, nor are they trying to present a merely objective description, but they are saying, “Considering the whole situation, a reasonable person considering that procedure would think of it as killing a baby.” In this way, there are two different ways that someone could commit a murder: doing something that they themselves think is killing someone, and doing something which a reasonable person would think is killing someone, even though they themselves do not view their action in that way.

      Of course “what a reasonable person would think” is not something that lends itself to 100% clarity.

      A different way to think about this would be rule utilitarianism vs act utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism is basically saying that the doing is what matters; act utilitarianism, that the making is what matters. In reality the rule version is better even by the standards of act utilitarianism (i.e. people end up better off): so act utilitarianism is not a stable moral theory. But even a rule utilitarian takes into account the consequences of the specific act. In the same way, you first should ask “what I am doing,” but then you need to add to that the specific effects of the specific act.

      If you read the comments to this post ( there will be some discussion that is relevant to your questions.


  2. Thank you for the reply – that does help to clarify things.

    However, “Of course, ‘what a reasonable person would think’ is not something that lends itself to 100% clarity” is an understatement of tremendous proportions, as I’m sure was your intention. What qualifies as a reasonable person is perhaps -the- central issue of contention between competing philosophies and cultures. Is it really possible to use such a controversial term as a standard for moral evaluation of actions, at least in any practical way? Frequently, I have gotten the feeling from your blog that you think things like “what qualifies as human nature”, “what is common sense”, and “what is reasonable” are more obvious than has been my experience.

    Everyone thinks they are reasonable, and rational argument appears to be of extremely limited use in convincing others of their errors about reason, in large part because the variant evaluations of the -nature- of these disagreements in the first place. Is the only way out a sort of MacIntyrean war of the Traditions? Or do we put our faith in the “progress of truth” over large timescales? (I suppose the two aren’t mutually exclusive)


    • It seems like most of what you say here applies to virtually anything that people have important disagreements about, not just to morality. But since morality is inevitable — you *must* do something or other – of course you have to use controversial terms as a moral standard of evaluation. You have no choice in the matter, if you are going to anything at all in situations where some people are going to say that you are acting badly. It would be nice, in those situations, to find an option that everyone would be pleased with, but there are many situations where there are no such options.

      The same thing applies e.g. to what counts as “common sense.” If you are going to make a public argument at all, you have to begin with something you expect people to accept. Similarly, if you want to make an public that *ought to* persuade everyone, you have to begin with things that *everyone* accepts. That is typically what I mean when I say that something is common sense: I mean that everyone accepts it. Of course not everyone is going to accept my conclusions, and this proves conclusively that one of two things is true: (1) I am wrong that everyone accepts the common sense idea; or (2) People are not seeing the consequences of what they believe.

      I think that (2) is typically the case (otherwise I wouldn’t call the matter common sense), but obviously I could be wrong, and probably am wrong in some of those cases.

      I just don’t see how this differs from any other sort of disagreement. Infallibility would be nice, but none of us have it.


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