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Moral Synonymy: John Stuart Mill and the Ethics of Style

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 21, Number 1, April 1997
pp. 46-60 | 10.1353/phl.1997.0003

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Philosophy and Literature 21.1 (1997) 46-60


"A common language in which values may be expressed": this is a phrase John Stuart Mill might well have used to describe utility -- the common denominator of different ethical values in utilitarian moral reckoning. In fact, this is Mill's phrase describing money as a circulating medium. In utilitarianism, utility is the ubiquitous form of moral currency; like money in the capitalist economy, it functions as the "universal equivalent" in the moral economy. It is therefore unsurprising that economic idioms abound in discussions of utilitarianism, with their talk of trade-offs, calculation, and costs. But it is not the parallel with economic exchange that I want to focus on in this article. Mill's reference to "a common language" points succinctly to a different connection which will be the center of attention, and that is between forms of ethical and linguistic equivalence.

It is this conjunction that the term "moral synonymy" is intended to capture. By moral synonymy I want to indicate a particular conjunction of perspectives on ethics and language, or more precisely, style -- a conjunction which, I shall argue, Mill's work can help us both to see and to see through. A bare and schematic anticipation of my approach would be to say that what a belief in commensurability is to the realm of ethics, a belief in synonymy is to the realm of language. This article will explore the interrelationship of these two ideas. In the end I shall suggest that the collaboration between ethics and style denoted by moral synonymy imposes severe limitations on thinking about ethics and literature, and that an examination of moral synonymy and its implications should be part of the currently revived attempts to work out the relationship between ethics and literature.

Synonymy is the idea that identical meaning can be expressed in different linguistic forms. Style -- as linguistic form of expression -- can be varied or discarded without altering the body of sense it clothes. To believe in moral commensurability is to believe that there is some common value by means of which different values can be measured against each other, and conflicts between them rationally decided. One leading candidate for the role of common value is, of course, utility, and utilitarianism will be taken here as typical of a commensurabilist approach. So, to outline the parallel between ethics and style that we will focus on: just as the believer in synonymy thinks that distinct linguistic styles may be shown to be so many different vehicles for expressing common meanings, so the utilitarian thinks that distinct values turn out ultimately to be so many forms for conveying the common value of utility. Utilitarians, as commensurabilists, happily commit the ethical variety of the "heresy of paraphrase." They are happy to reduce different values merely to styles of utility. This is why I want to call utilitarianism a kind of moral synonymy.


We can understand ethical commensurability more clearly by turning briefly to Mill's work. Mill relies on utility as the single criterion for settling ethical conflicts. In Utilitarianism he proposes happiness not as one among the ends or criteria of morality, but as the only one. He argues that "to desire anything except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant, is a physical and metaphysical impossibility" (X, p. 238). Such assertions are the source of familiar difficulties for Mill's moral theory, for there would seem to be ends other than happiness under the title of which people desire things. Moreover, some of these ends are arguably not only irreducible but also prone to come into conflict with utility (autonomy is a good example of one such value). So it is improbable that happiness is the unique categorial end. There is in fact a tension -- vital to Mill and to this article -- between Mill's formal philosophical adherence to utility and his practical recognition of the diversity of values; but nevertheless, he always professes ultimate allegiance to the idea that utility can be considered as the "common umpire" in ethical disputes (X, p. 226).

We can see here that utility allows commensurability. It is the common consideration in terms...

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