Many internet sites (like this one) say that the word amoral was coined by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) as a differentiation from immoral. These sites also say that amoral comes from the Greek privative prefix a- "not" and the Latin word moral.

If this were true, amoral and immoral would have completely equivalent meanings, but in philosophy the term amoral implies not to be concerned with morality, whereas immoral implies a direct opposition to certain standards of morality.

So my hypothesis is that the word amoral comes from the Latin prefix a- or ab-, meaning "away from" (source). This makes much more sense to me both for meaning and for coherence with moral, which is also Latin.

I am not an expert, so could you please tell me your opinion about this?

  • 3
    No, no, no. That's the "Etymological Fallacy", which states that the meaning of a word must always be predictable from its etymology. Not so. It's always an accident when words get borrowed, and words (as well as parts of words) mean what people want them to mean, not what they once meant centuries ago. If the word was coined recently, then the coiner used a- as a different negative prefix to indicate what he intended it to indicate, which was 'not concerned with morality' rather than 'not moral'. This is a common pattern. May 16 '15 at 16:14
  • 1
    I'm not an etymologist, so while we're waiting for the cavalry, let me note that many people would be pleased if your derivation were to be true, because that would stop the word from being a hybrid. My lay self, however, doubts it, as the other "a-" constructions are from the Greek, from atheist to astigmatic. It might also be worth noting that almost nobody knows the distinction you rightly propose. Listen to the old fogies grousing about how someone is "not only immoral but Amoral" – they clearly think this is something worse.
    – David Pugh
    May 16 '15 at 16:15
  • 1
    Your hypothesis definitely contradicts my "intuited" meaning of the "a-" prefix for many words, including "amoral". Amoral, atheist, astable, asymmetric, etc, all imply that the described entity totally lacks the specified attribute, as opposed to somehow being "against" that attribute. I think I'll stick with my definition. (And, BTW, I pronounce all those with a long A.)
    – Hot Licks
    May 16 '15 at 19:45

The word occurs in one of Stevenson's essays. He is reflecting on the ways in which a writer may choose to approach the subject of his writing:

"There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; which either does not regard the human will at all, or deals with it in obvious and healthy relations; where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life".

Today, 'amoral' often has connotations of being unable to tell right from wrong, but this is clearly not what Stevenson had in mind. He was simply drawing a distinction between those actions that have an obvious moral dimension and those that either lack this dimension or where (speaking as a writer) this dimension is of secondary importance.

So the meaning of a word is liable to change with time, or the word acquires new senses; and as John Lawler has pointed out, a word borrowed from another language cannot be relied on to mean what it meant in its parent language, nor can its meaning necessarily be derived from etymological analysis. The latter is at best a guide to the meaning, not an infallible marker of it.

  • I've never regarded "amoral" as meaning unable to tell right from wrong, but rather simply not making moral distinctions.
    – Hot Licks
    May 16 '15 at 19:46
  • @HotLicks - Sure. The word has multiple connotations, some of which are more salient for certain people, and others of which seem more salient for other people. In all likelihood, no two individuals will be in total agreement about all the denotations and connotations of a given word. For the record, your sense of what 'amoral' means overlaps with mine.
    – Erik Kowal
    May 16 '15 at 20:51

That Latin ab-/a- prefix leads to long 'a' sounds, like in "aversion", not the short sound of the a- in "amoral," which is part of how we know that the word must come from the Greek a- prefix. You're right that looking just at the prefix, the word should have the same meaning as "immoral," but Stevenson gave the word its current meaning when he first used it:

'There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a- moral; which either does not regard the human will at all...'

  • 4
    But this is not from the Latin prefix a/ab 'from'. This is from the Greek prefix a- 'not'. And the way a sound was pronounced when a borrowed word was in another language (not English) has very little to do with how it is pronounced in Modern English. Borrowings always change pronunciation; if everything in English sounded like it originally did, nobody could understand anything. May 16 '15 at 17:43
  • That's my point about the prefixes — I'm explaining why it must be from the Greek a- and not the Latin a/ab 'from' because of the sound of the prefixes. I'm not actually looking at the latin sound, but at other English words with these prefixes; words with the Latin a/ab 'from' have long 'a' sounds, while words with the Greek a- have short sounds (in our case, amoral).
    – user121812
    May 16 '15 at 17:48
  • 2
    Amoral is often pronounced /ei'morəl/, with an officially "long" vowel. As I said, it's largely arbitrary how borrowed or coined words are pronounced, and there's always a lot of variation. This means you can't depend on roots for pronunciation, and only occasionally for meaning. May 16 '15 at 17:54
  • Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't eɪ a short sound? I agree that borrowed words' pronunciations are largely arbitrary, but the word itself hasn't been borrowed — just the prefix, whose pronunciation is largely not arbitrary.
    – user121812
    May 16 '15 at 17:58
  • 2
    All vowels in English are short sounds; vowel length is not phonemic in English. [ei] is a traditionally "long" diphthongized vowel. called "Long A" by spelling teachers. It used to be a long vowel in Middle English, but was changed by the Great Vowel Shift into a vowel pronounced in a different part of the mouth. May 16 '15 at 18:05

It's somewhat mystifying to me that Robert Louis Stevenson chose to introduce a-moral as a term for the neutral ground between moral and immoral, given that people had been using unmoral in much the same sense for more than four decades before he wrote and published "A Gossip on Romance" in 1882. First to be published is this instance from Frederic Myers, Catholic Thoughts on the Church of Christ and the Church of England (by 1841):

The obvious and sufficient reason why we may not judge unfavourbly of the Wisdom and Goodness of the Supreme Will from the numerous instances which we have of incomprehensible evil and misery which exist in the world, id this, that we are not in possession of the whole case, and especially not of its end, and the allotments of a Future State may not only rectify those of the present, but may absolutely require the present condition of things as Discipline or Developement, or otherwise : the disorganisation and imperfection of the unmoral part of the universe may form some introduction to a nobler state which the Unknown Future may disclose, and all the sorrow and the suffering of spiritual natures may be as necessary for their immortal education, as exercise and effort are for their mortal growth.

From a review of Thomas Arnold, "Inaugural Lecture on Modern History [delivered at Oxford, December 1841], with Appendix," in Eclectic Review (April 1843):

Dr. Arnold endeavours to evade the objection, that his argument would apply equally to all other associations, by laying stress on the fact, that the State is the only one which possesses 'sovereignty,' and can 'influence and compel the actions of us all;' and, therefore, we should establish the dominion of an evil principle, in conceding that the State is an 'unmoral' institution. If this is to the purpose, it assumes the very point which is denied. By 'unmoral,' Dr. Arnold of course here means 'non-spiritual;' (for we also hold the State and every other human association whatever, to be moral,) and he rightly infers that it cannot be a non-spiritual institution, if it is to be justified in 'compelling' us as to spiritual matters. ...


By way of illustration, let us consider the case of a ship company, as that of the owners of the Great Western, who combined to build and store the vessel, and send her, duly fitted out, on a mercantile enterprise from Bristol to New York. Their avowed immediate and sufficient object is, pecuniary gain; and, therefore, in Dr. Arnold's view, it is an unmoral society and not bound to unite in common worship, or to refuse Jew and Parsee shareholders; while, as it does not possess the power of religious compulsion, (i.e. the right over life and death,) it can be thus unmoral, without becoming immoral.

From Francis Newman, A History of the Hebrew Monarchy from the Administration of Samuel to the Babylonish Captivity (1847):

It is a striking illustration of the intensely Jehovistic but unmoral spirit of the book of Chronicles, that it records Saul to have been slain and his dynasty to have fallen, not because he massacred the priests, (which morally, politically and religiously was the true reason,) but, "because he inquired of a necromancer and not of Jehova." (1 Chron. x. 13.)

From "The Nature and Functions of Conscience," in Lowell Lectures: On the Application of Metaphysical and Ethical Science to the Evidences of Religion (1849):

Human nature is essentially moral, and we can no more put off, or lay aside, even for a time, this attribute of our being, than we can discard reason and take instinct in its place. There are immoral men who hear the voice of conscience, but heed it not ; but there is no such thing as an unmoral man, to whom conscience speaks not at all. At any rate, no such being can be found out of a mad-house ; and even there, what we see is not so much the absolute privation of the rational and moral faculties, as the awful spectacle of reason and conscience alike in ruins.

Another interesting early use of unmoral appears in Marian Evans's (George Eliot's) 1854 translation of Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity:

A merely moral being cannot forgive what is contrary to the law if morality. Tht which denies the law, is denied by the law. The moral judge, who does not infuse human blood into his judgment, judges the sinner relentlessly, inexorably. Since, then, God is regarded as a sin-pardoning being, he is posited, not indeed as an unmoral, but as more than a moral being—in a word, as a human being.

Still, there's no arguing with success, and the Ngram chart for "an amoral" (blue line) versus "an unmoral" (red line) across the years 1800–2000 shows an almost total victory for "an amoral" over the years between roughly 1950 and 2000:

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