Moral Synonymy: John Stuart Mill and the Ethics of Style

  • Dan Burnstone


‘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.1 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.2 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 essay. Mill’s reference to ‘a common language’ points succinctly to a different connection which will be the centre of attention, and that is between forms of ethical and linguistic equivalence.


Moral Agency Linguistic Form Personal Style Moral Luck Critical Ethic 
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  1. 2.
    Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Allen Lane, 1973) 142.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    This is argued by John Skorupski, John Stuart Mill (London: Routledge, 1989) 300–7.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Steven Lukes, Moral Conflict and Politics (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991) 45.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1985) 17–18.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Isaiah Berlin, ‘John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life’, in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969) 178.Google Scholar
  6. 20.
    Charles Altieri, ‘Personal Style as Articulate Intentionality’, in The Question of Style in Literature and the Arts, ed. Caroline van Eck, James McAllister and Renée van de Vall (Cambridge University Press, 1995) 201.Google Scholar
  7. 22.
    Charles Altieri, ‘Style as the Man’, in Analytic Aesthetics, ed. Richard Shusterman (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989) 64.Google Scholar
  8. 28.
    For the idea of personal style as public tenet, see E. L. Epstein, Language and Style (London: Methuen, 1978) 23.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dan Burnstone

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