Word Confusion: Amoral vs Immoral vs Nonmoral vs Unmoral

Posted November 23, 2017 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Egads, how not moral can one get with all these?

Immoral is pretty obvious, as it’s all about breaking moral rules, failing to adhere to the rules which society has set to distinguish between right and wrong.

When it comes to amoral, nonmoral, and unmoral, all three are neither moral nor immoral in general, and the distinctions are dependent upon one’s understanding of right and wrong, involuntary choices or reactions, animals, and/or natural forces.


The key in understanding amoral actions or thoughts are that the person is neutral to the concept of moral standards, no understanding of these norms, or no sense of right and wrong.

One example given which put this concept in place for me were the words apolitical and asexual. They’re both neutral words which help take the “sting” of morality out of how I have defined amoral.

The use of amoral is growing in popularity as people tend to confuse nonmoral and unmoral with immoral (Skillin, 449).


When a voluntary choice is made to act against what your (or your character’s) society decides is the correct action, then it is immoral. It’s a judgment based on that society’s rules.


A nonmoral action is involuntary, in which case it is considered to be outside the moral norm and is not subject to judgment.

A glass falling off the countertop and breaking is a nonmoral action. It only becomes a question of immorality if someone purposely shoved the glass off the counter. Of course, if it was the cat pushing it off, then it’s more of an amoral or nonmoral act, since the cat, technically, has no concept of right or wrong.

The age-old query about the tree falling in the forest is usually one about sound, however it is also a nonmoral action, as the tree doesn’t choose to fall. A tremor caused by a spontaneous overflow of energy from one’s nerve centers that causes an action is not a choice, and is therefore, a nonmoral action. A reflex action in which you experience an automatic response to a sensory stimulation from outside your body is considered involuntary, and therefore nonmoral. So, the next time you reach for the phone as it flies off the car seat or you jerk your hand back after touching something hot, at least you’ll know it was a nonmoral action, lol.


There is no right or wrong to apply to the unmoral, as it refers to animals, forces of nature, and machines and not people.

The Base Word is Moral

Since this post is all about the anti-moral, you may want to read the baseline, the moral, from which it all gets turned about.

To be moral involves judgement and free choice by a person who chooses to act one way or another (without any external influence, compulsion or coercion), to choose a moral action. Of course, this all depends on what that person’s society has decided is right and wrong. Such as, ahem, it’s okay for men to sleep around — he’s such a stud, but if a woman sleeps around — what a slut.

Some societies believe that slavery is wrong while in others slavery is an acceptable institution. Some societies believe it is right to stone someone for stepping outside marriage. In the past, our own society considered divorce an immoral choice.

So morality boils down to what your society approves or disapproves of.

Part of Grammar:
Adjective; Noun
Plural for the noun: morals
Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character

  • Concerned with or derived from the code of interpersonal behavior that is considered right or acceptable in a particular society
  • [Attrib.] Examining the nature of ethics and the foundations of good and bad character and conduct

Holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct

A lesson, especially one concerning what is right or prudent, that can be derived from a story, a piece of information, or an experience

[Morals] A person’s standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do

We must consider the moral dimensions of medical intervention.

You’re making a moral judgment.

An individual’s ambitions may get out of step with the general moral code.

There is a moral obligation on society to do something about the inner city’s problems.

They’re all a bunch of moral philosophers.

He prides himself on being a highly moral and ethical person.

The moral of this story was that one must see the beauty in what one has.

It’s the corruption of public morals!

I believe addicts have no morals and cannot be trusted.

History of the Word:
Late Middle English from the Latin moralis, which is from mos, mor- meaning custom (the plural form would be mores meaning morals.

As a noun, the word was first used to translate Latin Moralia, the title of St Gregory the Great’s moral exposition of the Book of Job, and was subsequently applied to the works of various classical writers.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

If you found this post on “Amoral vs Immoral vs Nonmoral vs Unmoral” interesting, consider tweeting it to your friends. Subscribe to KD Did It, if you’d like to track this post for future updates.

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Amoral Immoral Nonmoral Unmoral
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Dictionary.com: amoral, nonmoral, and unmoral; The Free Dictionary: nonmoral

Hilary Clinton in profile clapping

“Hillary Clinton Talks About Her Book Hard Choices” by Lauren Gerson (Flickr) is under the CC BY 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

Hillary Clinton must be amoral when she can’t recognize her own hypocrisy.

A derivative photo combining four priests walking with the Vatican in the background

Basilica, Saint Peters, Vatican City, Rome, Italy” is by skeeze and “Priests Walking by St. Peters Basilica” is by Yolanda; both are in the public domain, via VisualHunt

I can think of nothing more immoral than priests abusing children, and a fine Christian organization that covers it up and allows it to continue.

Nonmoral action of leg falling through boards

“Gravity Falls” courtesy of Rebloggy, via GIPHY

Looks like an involuntary reaction to a situation to me in this nonmoral action.

Rivulets of water cascade down a cliff face.

“Wentworth Falls” by D-Stanley is under the CC BY 2.0 license, via VisualHunt.

Water falling down the cliff face is an unmoral action.

Part of Grammar:
Adjective Adjective Adjective Adjective
A neutral lack of understanding of right or wrong by:

  1. People with no understanding of a moral code
  2. Places or situations where the idea of morals doesn’t apply


Neither moral nor immoral

Lacking a moral sense

  • Unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of something

Not involving questions of right or wrong

Having no moral standards, restraints, or principles

  • Doesn’t believe in right and wrong
  • Doesn’t understand right and wrong
  • Doesn’t have a conscience, and so can’t be said to act against it
Chooses to violate societal norms or rules


Not conforming to accepted standards of morality

  • Not conforming to the patterns of conduct usually accepted or established as consistent with principles of personal and social ethics

Licentious or lascivious

In violation of morals

An involuntary action by:

  1. Instinctive actions by animals
  2. Actions by inanimate objects
  3. Reflex actions or twitches
  4. Children or handicapped persons who don’t understand the difference between right and wrong
  5. Actions forced due to compulsion

Not holding or manifesting moral principles

  • Having no relation to morality
  • Neither moral nor immoral
Right and wrong doesn’t apply to animals or natural forces

Not influenced by or concerned with morality

Outside morality

  • Amoral

Neither moral nor immoral

He has an amoral attitude to sex.

He was a completely amoral person.

Two-year-olds are amoral, for they haven’t yet learned the difference between right and wrong.

“Blame the African countries and the amoral people who go into the savannahs and the forests and slaughter the animals.” – Michael Tomasky, “A World Without Elephants? Blame China“, Daily Beast, 6 August 2014

It was an immoral and unwinnable war.

“The film examines labor in the U.S. agriculture sector and the ‘immoral practices’ that affect thousands of farmworkers.” – Asawin Suebsaeng, “This Is How Eva Longoria Is Trying to Win the Midterms“, Daily Beast, 30 September 2014

“These are all fruitful options to pursue for any atheist interested in challenging the immoral stereotypes we have.” – Vlad Chituc, “Loud, Proud, and Atheist: ‘Openly Secular’ Encourages Nonbelievers to Come Out of the Closet“, Daily Beast, 24 September 2014

“The researchers collected over 13,000 responses, almost 4,000 of which described a moral or immoral event.” – Elizabeth Picciuto, “It’s Official: Religion Doesn’t Make You More Moral“, Daily Beast, 22 September 2014

Legal justice is primarily about nonmoral value judgments.

It was a completely nonmoral problem and involved only judgments as to efficacy.

“When we do not at all understand the cause of an action, whether a crime, a good action, or even one that is simply nonmoral, we ascribe a greater amount of freedom to it.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

“Properly speaking, both negative evil and errant cause are nonmoral sources of experienced evil.” – Plato, Timaeus

“In the course of his analysis, Pincoffs notes a distinction between moral and nonmoral virtues.” – Dogen, primer on the nonmoral virtues of the good person, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 1 January 2014

“Their main focus has been on proportionate reasoning–to weigh the relevant nonmoral goods in order to justify fetal death in such circumstances.” – “Quaestio disputata: threat of imminent death in pregnancy: a role for double-effect reasoning“, Theological Studies, 1 December 2011

Nature is unmoral.

Hurricanes are unmoral, since they are formed by unconscious natural processes that exist outside the bounds of morality.

“To begin with, it is unmoral, as a novel of this kind must necessarily be.” – Grant Martin Overton, “When Winter Comes to Main Street“, Project Gutenberg

“It is as unmoral as the succession of the seasons, or the movement of the tides.” – John A. Ryan, “Distributive Justice“, Project Gutenberg

Adverb: amorally
Noun: amoralism, amoralist, amorality
Adverb: immorally
Noun: immoralism, immoralist, immorality
Adverb: nonmorally
Noun: nonmorality
Adverb: unmorally
Noun: unmorality
History of the Word:
1882, as a hybrid formed from the Greek privative prefix a- meaning not + moral, which is derived from the Latin and meaning ethically indifferent.

It was first used by Robert Louis Stephenson (1850-1894) as a differentiation from immoral.

First recorded in 1650-60, as a combination: im- + moral. First recorded in 1865-70, as a combination: non- + moral. First recorded in 1835-45, as a combination: un- + moral.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves? Also, please note that I try to be as accurate as I can, but mistakes happen or I miss something. Email me if you find errors, so I can fix them…and we’ll all benefit!

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Resources Cited

What is the Difference Between Moral and Non-moral Actions” by Shally at Publish Your Article.net.

Writing Explained has a useful post, “Amoral vs. Immoral vs. Unmoral: What’s the Difference?“.

Pinterest Photo Credits:

Harvey Weinstein at the 2010 Time 100 Gala is David Shankbone’s own work under the CC BY 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons. Maritime Coast Spray is in the public domain and Wolf Snarl by DenaliNPS is under the CC BY-2.0 license; both are via VisualHunt.

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