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Philosophy 302: Ethics
Ethical Terms:  Amoral, Nonmoral, and Immoral

Abstract:  The terms "amoral," "nonmoral," and "immoral" are characterized for our study of ethics. These terms differ somewhat from their ordinary language use.

I. How do we distinguish between a moral issue and a nonmoral issue?

 

A. There is certainly a wide disagreement over the use of the terms.

 

 

1. Is littering on campus a moral issue?

 

 

2. Is which shoe you put on first in the morning a moral issue?

 

B. How we answer these questions depends in part upon the distinctions we make among the meanings of the terms "moral," "immoral," "amoral," and "nonmoral."

 

 

1. Nonmoral actions or events: those areas of interest where moral categories cannot be applied.

 

 

 

a. Almost all examples involving human intention, volition, or behavior are described in terms of moral categories, ceteris paribus, since such examples involve the possibility of helping or harming oneself or others.

 

 

 

b. For example, wondering whether one should eat grapefruit, wear socks of a specific shade of color, or part your hair on the left side of the head are all usually considered nonmoral issues. Yet there are circumstances where such actions could have moral consequences.

 

 

 

c. Generally speaking, statements in the sciences (so-called "factual statements") are considered to be about nonmoral issues as well.

 

 

2. Immoral actions or events: those areas of interest where moral categories do apply and of are such a kind as to be evil, sinful, or wrong according to some code or theory of ethics.

 

 

 

a. Telling a lie is c.p. an immoral action.

 

 

 

b. An immoral action then can be defined as a violation of a rule or code of ethics.

 

 

 

c. Strictly speaking, on the one hand, an action could be considered immoral on the basis of one rule, code, or theory and, on the other hand, be considered moral or even nonmoral on another rule, code, or theory. Such examples are common from the point of view of sociological or moral relativism.

 

 

 

 

1. Note that this observation does not imply ethical relativism is true since we are speaking in terms of morals and not ethics.

 

 

 

 

2. Even though most persons do not clearly distinguish between morals (descriptive ethics) and ethics (prescriptive ethics), the foregoing is a compelling reason to do so.

 

 

3. Amoral actions or events: those areas of interest exhibiting indifference to and not abiding by the moral rules or codes of society.

 

 

 

a. Note that an amoral action by one person could be considered nonmoral (or even immoral) by a specific society, depending upon the moral code of the society.

 

 

 

 

1. If I tell a lie without concern for the moral concepts of a society of what is good and bad, then c.p. I have acted amorally. (Notice how such a view makes the use of "amoral" intentional.)

 

 

 

 

2. For example, a sociopath, sometimes called a person without a conscience, and a very young child are called "amoral" because such people have no feeling or understanding of the concepts of right and wrong.

 

 

 

b. If I tell a lie without concern for the moral rules of society and it is a "white" lie and "white" lies are permissible in that society, then I am actually acting amorally. Nevertheless, my action is considered to be by the rules of that society nonmoral or morally permissible.

 

 

 

c. The "white" lie told in a society where such actions are against the moral code would be considered an immoral action and would be called "wrong."

d. It should be noted that "amoral" is sometimes used in ordinary language in the same way that "nonmoral" is used. Many dictionaries indicate the terms are synonymous. E.g., the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed. 2000) defines "unmoral" as "1. Having no moral quality; amoral. 2. Unrelated to moral or ethical considerations; nonmoral."

 

 

 

 e. In this course, based on the reasons stated above, the distinction between "amoral" and "nonmoral" is observed.

II. Let us summarize the differences between these terms in a slightly different way.

 

A. "Amoral" in dictionaries is sometimes defined with reference to value-free situations (neither moral nor immoral).

 

 

1. This definition of "amoral" makes it a synonym of "nonmoral."

 

 

2. For example, physics would be an amoral discipline in this sense of the term.

 

 

3. Nevertheless, in this course we will not follow this ordinary language practice. Instead, we will mark a theoretical difference between the two terms as described above.

 

B. "Amoral" is also used (in philosophy) in contrast to nonmoral and immoral. Amoral actions would include nonintentional (but not necessarily unintentional) actions. I suspect then . . .

 

 

1. "Nonmoral" actions would be those actions where moral categories (such a right and wrong) cannot be applied (such as matters of fact in scientific descriptions).

 

 

 

a. A nonintentional action such as reflex or an accident would be ordinarily a nonmoral action.

 

 

 

b. An unintentional action resulting from ignorance is sometimes called "nonmoral" and other times called "immoral" depending upon the code of the society as to whether or not a person is morally responsible for knowledge. (Cf., the Socratic Paradox.)

 

 

2. From this point of view, amoral actions would be without concern or intention as to moral consequences.

 

C. In sum, "amoral" is ambiguous in ordinary language.

 

 

1. C.p., taking a sip of water can be described as nonmoral as well as amoral in the usual dictionary definitions. Nevertheless, in this course of study we term such an action "nonmoral."

 

 

2. If, however, the water sipped contains hemlock and the subject intentionally sips it with indifference to the wrongness of suicide, then the action would not be described as nonmoral but would be properly called amoral. These are the senses of the terms we will use in this course.

Recommended Sources

The Definition of Morality: A discussion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the crucial role the definition of "morality" has in the study of ethics by Bernhard Gert. 

Quiz on What is a Moral Issue?
:  A short quiz covering the terms "moral," "immoral," "nonmoral," and "amoral."

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