I am grading papers and came upon the following sentence: "Candide becomes immoral..."

It bothers me -- I am of the sense that a person can become amoral, but I'm not sure what it would mean for a person to become immoral. A person can certainly perform immoral actions or espouse positions which go against a standard of morality, but can the person be immoral -- can "immoral" modify the person in some sense? Is this too much a philosophy question and not enough an English usage question?

  • Morality on Wikipedia: "Immorality is the active opposition to morality (i.e. opposition to that which is good or right), while amorality is variously defined as an unawareness of, indifference toward, or disbelief in any set of moral standards or principles." -- These terms do not have the connotations of pertaining necessarily to the nature of a person or of an action. Apparently, such a contention has no basis. – Kris Nov 21 '12 at 15:11
  • Naturally, "unawareness of, indifference toward, or disbelief" can only be attributed to persons and not to actions. The converse about "opposition to that which is good or right" can be attributed to both. – Kris Nov 21 '12 at 15:13
  • but active opposition requires that the actions be judged in their position. someone could then "demonstrate his immorality" but could he "become immoral"? – rosends Nov 21 '12 at 15:16
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    It is perfectly ordinary to describe a person who performs immoral acts as an immoral person. A person who intentionally violates moral standards is not amoral, but immoral. To be "amoral" a person would have to lack an ethical sense. (An "immoral thief" would deserve condemnation -- like someone who runs a red light because they're in a hurry. An "amoral thief" would deserve pity -- like someone who runs a red light because they're colorblind.) – David Schwartz Nov 21 '12 at 18:21
  • side-note: colorblind people can still see that the light on top is on (or off), so they don't really run red lights any more than other people do. – KnightHawk Aug 6 '14 at 16:34

If you use Google Ngrams to look at usage statistics, immoral is applied to people much more often than amoral. While moral philosophers may make a distinction between immoral and amoral, I suspect that most English speakers don't use the word amoral, and use immoral where maybe they should technically use amoral when talking about people.

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Dan, the morality of a person or action is necessarily determined in context of moral standards. When your student says "Candide becomes immoral...", he or she is consciously or unconsciously applying some moral standard to Candide. (Of course I don't know what comes after the ellipsis, so I don't know whether or not the student clarifies ...). If Candide violates his own standards, his action is immoral and he becomes immoral in his own judgement. If Candide violates the student's standards, it is still appropriate for the student to claim that the act and the actor are immoral. But, ideally the student should clarify by what standard the action and actor are being judged.

Shorter and more to the point: a person can be judged immoral both in terms of external standards and his or her internal standards. And, clearly, an action can be judge immoral, again, against some standard.

Of course if the actor does not know that action is immoral or does not regard the action as immoral, by the actor's standard, the action is either moral or amoral.

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  • well, I didn't want to include what comes next because it was poorly worded and not logically connected (hint, it started with "because he has no opinions"), but it still smacks me as being wrong -- claiming that a character BECOMES immoral, without first introducing the action or the standard of morality posits that the final status (i.e. the applied word "immoral" for a person) can be judged and quantified as separate from demonstrable actions or attitudes. – rosends Nov 21 '12 at 16:01

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