In different sources there are variating explanations. What are their standard definitions?

Further more, I have here a definition in German. Does "Unmoral" in German mean "Immoral"?

''„Unmoralisch" setzt die Perspektive einer bestimmten Moral voraus, aus deren Sicht eine Handlung, Handlungsabsicht oder ein bestimmtes Urteil als moralisch verwerflich oder bedenklich beurteilt wird. „Amoralisch" setzt die Perspektive eines bestimmten Moralbegriffs voraus und beschreibt Handlungsmotive und praktische Denkweisen, die dadurch charakterisiert sind, dass sie moralischen Normen - wie diese im einzelnen auch immer beschaffen sein mögen - keinerlei Verbindlichkeit zusprechen, sondern sich stattdessen an anderen als moralischen oder an gar keinen Normen orientieren. „Amoralisch" verhält sich der, der sich ausschließlich von den eigenen Interessen, von bestimmten nicht-moralischen Selbstbildern, von ästhetischen Idealen oder auch - im Sinne von Willkürhandlungen - von gar keinen übergreifenden Normen leiten lässt. Etwas als „unmoralisch" zu bezeichnen, setzt voraus, dass man eine Moral hat, „amoralisch", dass man einen Begriff von Moral hat. Beide Begriffe setzen voraus, dass man bereits weiß, wie sich zwischen moralischen und nicht-moralischen Urteilen, Normen und Grundsätzen unterscheiden lässt.''-Birnbach, Analytische Einführung in die Ethik, P. 9.


The Writing Explained site defines these words as follows:

An immoral person knows something is wrong but does it anyway.

An amoral person does not have a sense of right and wrong.

Something that is unmoral exists outside the bounds of what could be considered right and wrong—such as an animal or weather pattern.

This may be adequate to correctly use the words, but to be better understood, one can search further. Let's see what Wikipedia has for each of these.

Here is how Wikipedia describes "immorality" along with providing additional information:

Immorality is the violation of moral laws, norms or standards. Immorality is normally applied to people or actions, or in a broader sense, it can be applied to groups or corporate bodies, beliefs, religions, and works of art.

To be immoral assumes there are moral laws, norms or standards to violate.

The following is how Wikipedia describes "amorality":

Amorality is an absence of, indifference towards, or disregard for morality.

Morality and amorality in humans and animals is a subject of dispute among scientists and philosophers. If morality is intrinsic to humanity, then amoral human beings either do not exist or are only deficiently human. If morality is extrinsic to humanity, then amoral human beings can both exist and be fully human, and as such be amoral either by nature or by choice.

Note that there is some dispute about whether humans can be amoral. This is different from what the Writing Explained site suggests.

Searching for "unmorality" in Wikipedia redirects one to "morality". This suggests that the use of "unmorality" may not be clearly distinguished from "immorality" or "amorality".

The moral of the story, pun intended, is that people have different expectations about what words mean and one might have to be prepared to state how one is using them.

Regarding the question: Does "Unmoral" in German mean "Immoral"?

Google Translate translates "unmoral" as "immoral". In the text quoted, the first sentence, "'„Unmoralisch" setzt die Perspektive einer bestimmten Moral voraus, aus deren Sicht eine Handlung, Handlungsabsicht oder ein bestimmtes Urteil als moralisch verwerflich oder bedenklich beurteilt wird."

If the phrase "bestimmten Moral" becomes "certain morality", then this would fall under Wikipedia's description of "immoral".


"Amorality", Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amorality

"Immoral", Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immorality

"Morality", Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morality

Writing Explained https://writingexplained.org/amoral-vs-immoral-vs-unmoral-difference

  • Thank you very much for your detailed explanations! I did also read through Wikipedia. The biggest difference between Immoral and Amoral maybe that Amoral stresses on whether a person has the "concept" of morality. If there are more distinctions between the two I am glad to know! Nov 14 '18 at 18:33
  • @SannaLannovna That is how I see it also. To be immoral one needs a moral code or concept of some sort. Of course further reading in, say, SEP or the IEP might bring up more suggestions. The word "unmoral" probably should not be used in English. As a native English speaker, I find it even hard to pronounce. Nov 14 '18 at 18:36
  • 1
    When Amoral (the prefix -a means without) means that someone does not have the concept of morality, perhaps that person would lack the intention to act morally permanently. With Unmoral it may applies just to particular cases, a person may act unmoral occasionally, once or twice. I believe (not verified haha) this is their distinctions. Nov 14 '18 at 18:46
  • @Frank Hubeny. I've replaced 'unmoral' with 'non-moral' as the latter is the standard term in Anglo-American ethics. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 29 '18 at 12:34

These three terms have distinct meanings. I'd suggest, however, that 'non-moral' is the standard term in Anglo-American ethics, not 'unmoral'.


This is ambiguous. (a) 'In doing X, she did a moral action' usually means that she did a morally good or commendable action'. However, (b) it might mean rather that her action was moral as distinct from non-moral. It was open to commendation or condemnation in a way that non-moral actions aren't (see below).


In cases of amoral [action] the agent is either unaware of or, at least, indifferent to the wrongness of what he does. Here the wrongdoing is due neither to weakness of will nor to bad values (at least not bad moral values), but due rather to a lack of concern about whether one's acts are morally right or wrong. The problem with the amoral agent, it seems, is not that he has bad principles, nor that he fails to live up to his good principles, but rather that he fails to have any principles - at least, he has no moral principles. (Ronald D. Milo, 'Amorality', Mind, New Series, Vol. 92, No. 368 (Oct., 1983), pp. 481-498: 481-2.)

Strictly, the amoral agent is unaware of or indifferent to the wrongness or the rightness of what he does. Or of what the rest of us, who are not amoral agents, would consider rightness or wrongness.

Non-moral [unmoral]

The non-moral relates to actions that are 'removed from the moral realm - not an appropriate object either of moral condemnation or commendation' (Milo: 481). So, for instance, we classify the actions of non-human animals as non-moral because these animals lack certain capacities of consciousness by reason of which they can form ideas of moral right or wrong and be held responsible for their actions. They are not capable of morality.

Equally one might include accidental actions as non-moral because whatever the agent did was beyond her control - as in falling onto someone in a crowded railway carriage and breaking their arm because the train came to a sudden, unexpected halt. One can't morally blame or condemn an agent who caused injury in this way.

Note on animal morality

I have conventionally assumed that non-human animals are not capable of morality but I am aware of, and not unsympathetic to, the claim that :

Morality finds its fullest expression among human beings, but we can observe the building blocks of morality — moral sentiments and social pressure— among nonhuman primates. (Grace Clement, 'Animals and Moral Agency: The Recent Debate and Its Implications', Journal of Animal Ethics , Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 1-14: 4. Clement is reporting the views of F. De Waal, (2006), Primates and philosophers: How morality evolved. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Unfortunately the question is too complex to enter further into here.)

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