What's the difference between an amoral act and an immoral act? Not much, if it has harmful consequences — but there is a significant grammatical difference that can tell you a lot about the person committing the act. Keep reading to learn the difference between amoral vs. immoral, and when you should use each.
The word moral comes from the Latin word moralis, later the Old French moral, which means "proper behavior" or "relating to manners." It describes the way an individual is expected to behave in terms of right and wrong. In sociology, morals translate to social mores — widely observed norms in a society.
Amoral means "without morals." It attaches the prefix a- to the root word "moral," just like the adjectives apolitical (without politics) and atypical (not typical). It describes someone who lives outside of a society's moral code. Their behavior is not based on what is right or wrong; they may not even know the difference.
Examples of amoral in a sentence include:
- The cat knocked the glass of water over in one amoral motion.
- Babies' biting behavior is often amoral, as they don't know that biting is wrong.
- Without a clear role model, teenagers can grow up amoral and without values.
- Many people consider politicians to be amoral because they don't always vote for what's right.
Don't mix up amoral and "a moral." That important space changes the adjective amoral to a noun with quite a different meaning.
Immoral means "against morals." Like in the words impossible or impatient, the prefix im- indicates that an action is the opposite of a moral behavior. Someone who commits an immoral act knows the difference between right and wrong and chooses to do the wrong thing on purpose. Unlike an amoral person, an immoral person knows better.
Some examples of immoral in a sentence include:
- The lawyer described the defendant's immoral treatment of his wife.
- Your decision to cut funding to early education is utterly immoral.
- Animal abuse is considered immoral and illegal in every state.
- The wicked witch cackled at her immoral plan to kidnap the princess.
People often mistake immoral with immortal. Both words do use im- to show the opposite of the base word. However, immoral means "without morals," while immortal means "without mortality" — a person who can live forever.
In addition to amoral vs. immoral, you may also encounter the adjectives unmoral and nonmoral. These are real words, and while they are similar to amoral and immoral, there are slight usage differences, which are:
- amoral - without morals
- immoral - against morals
- unmoral - not having morals
- nonmoral - not relevant to morality
As you can see, amoral and unmoral are somewhat similar. They both describe a situation where someone may or may not know what's right or wrong, so their behavior doesn't demonstrate a moral choice. Nonmoral indicates that a situation doesn't have a moral standing, such as picking out a pencil or going to sleep.
Use these sentences to help you tell the difference:
- Computers make amoral decisions based on their programming.
- Programmers can use computers to commit immoral crimes, such as spying on others and stealing money.
- However, the computer itself is a piece of machinery; it is unmoral.
- Most programmers write nonmoral programs, such as calendar apps and word puzzles.
See how the examples work with animals here:
- A tiger attacking and eating an antelope is an amoral behavior because killing isn't wrong in the animal kingdom.
- A person killing another person is immoral because killing is wrong in human society.
- Animals make unmoral decisions in order to stay alive, not to do what's right and wrong.
- To them, killing is nonmoral; it's only about being hungry.
Notice that only humans can be immoral. That's because only humans abide by a sense of right and wrong. Computers, animals and even babies aren't capable of making moral decisions, so their choices are all amoral (or unmoral).
Hopefully, you'll never need to use the words amoral vs. immoral when describing the way others act toward you (or how you act toward others). For more information about morals, learn the difference between ethics, morals and values. Or, if you're still interested in how an affix can change the meaning of a word, check out the difference between imbed and embed.