immoral / unethical

Discussion in 'English Only' started by epistolario, Sep 11, 2008.

  1. epistolario

    epistolario Senior Member

    Hi everyone,

    I would like to verify the meaning of these two words because my source says that they are synonyms. I know that what is immoral or unethical can be subjective as it depends on one's personal conviction or religious affiliation. What I would like to learn is the correct usage of these terms [if I understand them correctly] as they are used by native English speakers.

    Based on my experience, what is usually labelled immoral are illicit sexual acts like fornication and adultery. And when one says immoral woman, one is usually talking about sexual immorality. But I also learned that immorality applies to corruption in the government, cheating in the elections, and similar acts [and not just sexual acts].

    On the other hand, unethical acts are those that are usually related to good manners and right conduct. For example, it is unethical to groom in public places (combing one's hair or putting on make up) and talk when your mouth is full. Also, they say that it is unethical to ask someone how much is his salary, unless you are very close friend or relative. The same is true with asking tactless questions that can offend other people.

    In my examples, I wouldn't consider combing one's hair in public immoral; nor will I consider adultery and fornication unethical. Please correct me if I have misunderstood the terms and feel free to give several very good examples of unethical and immoral acts. Thank you.
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2008
  2. Pet Korun

    Pet Korun Member

    English - Ireland
    You're exactly right about immoral, but your examples of unethical things would not be considered unethical in most places - Just impolite / rude.

    As far as I am concerned the two words have the same function except that when you say something is "immoral" you are saying it as if is a fact. Saying something is unethical acknowledges that other people may disagree with you more so.

    For example "It is unethical to steal to feed your family."
    You would not say "It is immoral to steal to feed your family."

    You would say something unethical was immoral to emphasis how strongly you felt about it.

    "It is unethical to buy new clothes and nice food when there are people starving in the world."
    "It is immoral to buy new clothes and nice food when there are people starving in the world."

    This is an opinion and should not be stated as a generally accepted fact; in the latter you are being slightly more extreme.

    The exception to this is that because of the history of our society, illicit sexual acts as you called them are always described as immoral; although in modern times people have come to accept them as long as they don't cause harm to others.

    The words basically mean the same thing; this is a "shades of meaning" debate. So I could have completely misinterpreted everything.
  3. kitenok Senior Member

    Hi ffrancis,
    I think these two terms can be considered largely overlapping but not identical. Some acts could easily be described as both unethical and immoral, while some acts would typically be described as one or the other. I'm not sure I have a beautiful explanation of where the difference lies, but I'll give it a shot.

    A government official embezzling money from the U.S. Treasury is behaving in a way that is both immoral and unethical. It is immoral because it is contrary to commonly held principles about how one should obtain money in this society. It is unethical because of the harm that it does to others - that tax money will no longer be able to go for building roads, and so on.

    If someone lives a lifestyle involving a lot of promiscuous sex, drug use, etc., this might be said to be immoral but not necessarily unethical. Immoral because it is contrary to commonly held principles about how one should live. But not necessarily unethical, because this lifestyle might involve no unfair treatment of anyone.

    So my idea of the difference between the two terms goes something like this:
    immoral = contrary to commonly held principles about how one should live
    unethical = unfair or harmful to someone
  4. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    To me, "unethical" is a characterization of a violation of standards of behavior for a given profession or role. "Immoral" is a characterization of a violation of standards of behavior for a human being, no matter what their profession or role. Of course, there isn't 100% agreement on either type of standard among all humans.
  5. Pet Korun

    Pet Korun Member

    English - Ireland
    That makes sense too.

    I think it fits with the idea that "immoral" is more universal.

    I think the easiest way to remember which word to use would just be to think of "immoral" as worse than "unethical".
  6. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    I also agree with James.

    It might be acceptable for a single man to flirt with an unmarried woman, but it would be unethical for a doctor to flirt with his patient, for instance.

    It is immoral to steal money. It is unethical for an investment counselor to give her clients advice that is intended to channel money toward her own enterprises.
  7. Pet Korun

    Pet Korun Member

    English - Ireland
    Those are great examples; you're right! That would be the safe way to remember it!
  8. kitenok Senior Member

    After reading subsequent posts, having a think about it, and doing some quick google-based usage research, I agree with JamesM's definitions more than my own in post 3...:eek: I must have been trying to relate "unethical" somehow to the philosophy of "ethics" without thinking much about how the word is used in the real world.
    Add my voice to the JamesM-NunT chorus.
  9. Pet Korun

    Pet Korun Member

    English - Ireland
    I too got tangled up with the big picture behind the word, I often do this: forgetting that all students of English need is the usage! I once confused the life out of a student in class trying to explain the term "Fall from grace" and going into far to much detail about the history of the phrase the philosophy and it's existence in different cultures.. instead of just saying "It's a phrase: he's saying things were wonderful before, and now they're not."

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