Q&A: Immoral vs amoral vs unmoral

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we have a moral dilemma about right and wrong.

Q: Hi AWC, can you help? I’m having a moral dilemma…

A: Is it whether to pretend to not be home when trick or treaters knock?

Q: What? No way, that’s easy. It’s like giving candy to a baby.

A: Um right. So, what’s your moral dilemma?

Q: It’s whether to use “immoral” or “amoral” when describing someone.

A: Ahhh, okay this is a good one – and trips up a few writers. But luckily, there are some rules.

Q: Phew.

A: So, let’s start with the common denominator – the adjective “moral”, which Macquarie Dictionary defines as being “concerned with the distinction between right or wrong”. It debuted in English in the 14th century, directly from the Latin “moralis” meaning “proper behaviour of a person in society”.

Q: So you might say that’s the moral of this story? Hahaha.

A: You’re hilarious.

Q: I know. Please continue.

A: That distinction between right and wrong is the key. If you are “immoral”, you know the difference, but you CHOOSE to act in a bad way – it’s a willing lack of that proper behaviour.

Q: So this is Dr Evil territory then? And comic book villains?

A: Well, yes. But it can also be a large corporation ripping off its customers. Or an able-bodied person knowingly parking in a disabled car parking space because it’s right outside the shop.

Q: Even if they’re just running in somewhere for 30 seconds?

A: Absolutely! It’s never acceptable EVER.

Q: Um, yes. Ahem, I knew that. Was just checking for… a friend.

A: Meanwhile, “amoral” is an adjective indicating no sense of right or wrong. It’s also described as “ethically indifferent” – apparently coined by Robert Louis Stevenson while he was writing The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the 1880s. It can be a fine line, but “amoral” has considerably less maniacal laughing and more blank staring.

Q: What does Macquarie Dictionary say about “amoral”?

A: It defines it as “without moral quality; neither moral or immoral.”

Q: So who might be “amoral”?

A: Babies that haven’t learnt right from wrong yet, or perhaps someone with a mental illness that inhibits them having a conscience about their behaviour.

Q: I guess this is where a plea of “insanity” comes into it in a court case, right?

A: Good point. That is essentially to differentiate an “immoral” act from an “amoral” one.

Q: I guess animals and objects would have to be “amoral” too, right?

A: Ah, well, that’s where we open door number three.

Q: Whaaa? What’s behind door number three?

A: The word “unmoral”. It’s defined as “having no moral aspect” and is used for things like animals, objects, machines and natural processes.

Q: So it’s used when you can’t really blame the thing?

A: That’s right. Morality is a human construct. So an action by an animal or object or a thunderstorm – none of these things acted with a conscience. Morality played no part.

Q: Okay, so if your friend was accidentally crushed by a stampede of zebras, then the zebras are blameless – unmoral?

A: That’s right. The friend should have used the zebra crossing like everyone else.

Q: Groan. So can you give me an example using all three?

A: Sure. The earthquake that destroyed the town was “unmoral”. However the looters that stole supplies following the quake were “immoral”. And the baby that swiped the other baby’s dummy at the evacuation centre was “amoral”.

Q: Okay good. Any other issues I need to be aware of?

A: “Unmoral” is a slippery one. Some people think of “unmoral” as being the same as “immoral”. Others prefer to lump animals, earthquakes etc into the “amoral” camp.

Q: That’s a crowded camp.

A: Yes. Our advice is to use all three. “Immoral” for situations where someone knows they’re doing bad… they have a conscience, but they ignore it.

Q: “Mwah ha haaaa…”

A: “Amoral” for when a person has no awareness of right or wrong.

Q: “Meh meh meh…”

A: And “unmoral” is when the question of morality is irrelevant because the thing doing bad things is an animal, object or force of nature.

Q: I’m exhausted.

A: Quite. And we didn’t even get to “non-moral” – an action unrelated to right and wrong, such as whether to wear red shoes or blue shoes to work.

Q: You literally can’t put a foot wrong there.

A: Nice.

Q: Alright, that’s enough. I don’t know about you, but my morals were certainly questioned today.

A: And answered!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!


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