Know your words: Immoral

Posted on Sat 13 Aug 2011 @ 12.01am UTC

[Updated 13 Aug 2011: amended for spelling and formatting errors]

SO FAR, we have done the words unlawful, illegal, illegitimate and illicit in their own posts.

Today, we try our hand at the word immoral and its related forms.

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immoral, immorally, immorality, immoralness

These words date from 1650-60 and they simply mean violating moral principles.

Warning: Be advised to use these words very carefully since, like the word illegitimate, they also come under the heading of actionable words (i.e. you can be held liable for defamation).

immoral (adj)

The adjective means several things, depending on the context of usage:

  1. not moral: not conforming/acting to accepted social/moral/ethical conduct
  2. sexually dissolute, profligate or promiscuous: immoral advances of the man
  3. licentious or lascivious or lewd
  4. unscrupulous or unethical: immoral trading in contraband medicine
  5. tending to corrupt or resulting from moral corruption: an immoral film, immoral earnings

Examples (mostly sense 1 unless otherwise stated):

Stealing is considered immoral. (1)

Many Greeks at the time deplored the debauchery, but many others
regularly engaged in such immoral behaviour. (2) (Sense 2)

Many societies have viewed wars as immoral but still could not prevent them. (3)

Is eugenics immoral? (4) (Senses 1 and 4)

If you are doing something immoral,
Jesus will call you away from that. (5) (Senses 1, 2 and 5)

Some people insist that human existence is intrinsically immoral. (6) (All)

It is immoral to use war for political gain. (7) (Senses 1, 4 and 5)

The things he had previously been involved in now seemed immoral. (8) (Sense 2?)

We are convinced, however, that if it is immoral to use
these weapons, it is also immoral to threaten their use. (9)

The dance was soon considered immoral with its flirtatious music. (10) (Sense 2)

There is no sense in morality, unless you are fundamentally immoral. (11)

America will persist in — strengthen even — the deeply immoral attitude
of ‘why should this happen to us?’ (12)

Well, for a start, many Kingston people believe debt slavery is totally immoral. (13)

Immoral personal conduct. (14) (Usually sense 2)

About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after
and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.
 (15) (Senses 1 and 2)
(Ernest Hemmingway, Death in the Afternoon, chapter 1)

The Japanese see self-assertion as immoral and self-sacrifice as
the sensible course to take in life.
(Akira Kurosawa, Something Like An Autobiography)

There is no such thing as moral or an immoral book.
Books are well-written, or badly written.
(Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, preface)

All the things I really like to do are either illegal, immoral or fattening. (18) (Sense 2)
(Alexander Woollcott, quoted in R. Drennan’s Wit’s End, 1968)

immorally (adv)

The adverb means several things, depending on the context of usage:

  1. not in a moral way: not in relation to standards of good character or conduct
  2. licentious, lascivious
  3. not of or concerned with the judgment of goodness or badness of human action and character

We cannot assume the injustice of any actions which only
create offence, and especially as regards religion and morals.
He who utters or does anything to wound the conscience
and moral sense of others, may indeed act immorally;
but, so long as he is not guilty of being importunate,
he violates not right. (19)
(Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), German statesman)

What if euthanasia is immoral because we’re capitalising on
the person asking for it simply isn’t in a right state of mind
to ask for it at the time? (20)

Nowadays, we would say whether something done was morally right or morally wrong. Immorally is a word that comes under actionable words and you can be held liable for defamation.

immorality (n)

This noun is usually for formal use and means several things, depending on the context of usage:

  1. the quality/character/state of being immoral: wickedness, evilness
  2. sexual misconduct: licentiousness, profligacy, promiscuity
  3. an immoral act or behaviour

The only immorality … is not to do one has to do when one has to do it. (20A)
(Jean Anouilh (1910-87), French playwright) 

The immorality of basing the defence of the West on the
threat of mutually assured destruction. (21) (Sense 1)

Religious denominations that regard drinking,
smoking, and even dancing as examples of immorality. (22) (Senses 1 and 3)

A sermon about modern society’s casual acceptance
of or indifference to immorality. (23) (All senses)

Her visitors were startled and fascinated by the foreignness
of this arrangement, which recalled scenes in French fiction, and
architectural incentives to immorality such as the
simple American had never dreamed of. (24) (Sense 2?)
(Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The Age of Innocence, 1920)

Then there was the Vicar of Ferne, a bearded, fine figure
of a man: his wife had been forced to leave him because of his
cruelty, and she had filled the neighbourhood with
stories of his immorality.
(25) (All senses)
(W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), Of Human Bondage, 1915)

This convention had been called to consider
public immorality and the remedy for it. (26) (All senses)
(Jack London (1876-1916), The Iron Heel, 1908)

Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign,
hanging always on the verge of starvation, and
dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of
men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time
slave drivers; under such circumstances, immorality was
exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it was under
the system of chattel slavery. (27) (All senses)
(Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), The Jungle, 1906)

The masses feel that drunkenness, stupidity and immorality
should be their own special property, and that if
any one of us makes an ass of himself, he is poaching
on their preserves. (28) (All senses)
(Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890)

Immoralities is something of an outdated plural for immoral acts.

Interestingly, an immoralist is an advocate of immorality (according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition (2000), Houghton Mifflin Company).

Interestingly also, the first known use of immorality was around 1566, thereby pre-dating immoral, immorally and immoralness.

immoralness (n)

This noun has the same meaning as immorality but provides for a relatively more informal flavour, usually referring to something having the qualities of immorality but perhaps not entirely being materially immoral.

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Basic synonyms for immoral are: bad, corrupt, debauched, depraved, degenerate, dishonest, dissolute, dissipated, evil, indecent, iniquitous, lewd, licentious, loose, louche, obscene, of easy virtue, profligate, reprobate, shameless, sinful, unchaste, unethical, unprincipled, vicious, vile, wicked, wrong, X-rated.

Basic synonyms for immorally are: sinfully, unethically, unjustly, unrighteously, wickedly, wrongly.

Referring to character, immoral describes one who makes no attempt to curb self-indulgence. In this regard, the adjective depraved also contains the meaning of immoral, plus the meaning of voluntarily seeking evil and viciousness.

Referring to conduct, immoral applies to one who acts against or does not obey standards of morality, and may mean licentious.

Referring to condition, immoral applies to one hopelessly (and usually passively) sunk in wickedness and unrestrained appetites.


Immoral, amoral, non-moral and unmoral are sometimes confused with one another. The most common confusion is immoral vs. amoral.

Immoral means ‘not moral’ and connotes evil or licentious behaviour.

Amoral mean ‘indifferent to or not concerned with morality,’ that is, having no understanding of the difference between right and wrong. So an amoral person is neither moral nor immoral, whereas an immoral person understands the difference but does wrong anyway.

 John loved Mary — his school sweetheart, the homecoming queen
and a bikini-wearing bathing queen — that his amoral
thoughts soon became immoral.

Amoral, non-moral and unmoral are practically synonymous (although amoral is by far the most common form). Non-moral and unmoral both mean ‘neither moral nor immoral,’ but there’s a fine line of difference:

Non-moral (adj, 1865-79) means ‘having no relation to morality’:

It was a completely non-moral problem and
involved only judgments as to efficacy.

Unmoral (adj, 1835-45) means ‘outside morality’:

Nature is unmoral. (31)

But wouldn’t it be better and clearer just to state the obvious rather than to use these hellish words? Most writersof good, clean, crisp English find it particularly morally indefensible to use non-moral and unmoral, and easily find ways to get around their emotionally charged ambiguities:

Richard is a person devoid of any sense of morality. (32) (Amoral)

The ability to solve mathematical problems is
a skill unrelated to morality.
(33) (Non-moral)

The processes of nature is outside morality. (34) (Unmoral)

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Ex turpi causa non oritur actio.

(No cause of action may be founded upon an immoral or illegal act.)

(Literally, ‘from a dishonourable cause an action does not arise.’)

This is a legal doctrine that states a claimant will be unable to pursue a cause of action in court if it arises in connection with his/her own illegal act. It is a recognition that the law ought not to compensate people who have suffered loss in the course of their own wrongful actions (even where the primary cause is attributable to someone else).

Ex turpi causa is also known as the illegality defence and is particulary relevant in the law of contract, tort and trusts. It is from this doctrine that we get the British legal maxim:

“Those who come in to Equity must come with clean hands.”

For instance:

  • A plaintiff may plead that even though he broke a contract (or conducted himself negligently or broke an equitable duty), he cannot sue by reason of his/her own illegality.
  • A prostitute cannot sue her patron for breach of contract by reason of non-payment since the contract is illegal in nature and the courts will not enforce it.
  • If you haven’t paid rent for ‘x’ number of months, you cannot sue the landlord for busted plumbing or collapsed roof because you yourself are in breach of contract by reason of non-payment of rent.
  • If you and I were robbing a bank and I injured you during the getaway, it is unlikely that you will be able to sustain an action in negligence against me.

The rationale for the illegality doctrine was first set out by Chief Justice Lord Mansfield in the English case of Holman v. Johnson [1775] 1 Cowp 341, 343.

Ex turpi causa is invoked as a defence in many claims in tort. However, in the law of tort, the principle would prevent a criminal from bringing a claim against a fellow criminal:

“If two burglars, Alice and Bob, agree to open a safe by means of explosive, and Alice so negligently handles the explosive charge as to injure Bob, Bob might find some difficulty in maintaining an action against Alice.”
(Lord Asquith’s obiter dictum in National Coal Board v. England [1954] AC 403)

It isn’t impossible, however. The law does not rule out the possibility that people involved in a joint criminal activity do owe each other a duty of care.

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Moral turpitude = immorality

In the UK and most other common law jurisdictions, moral turpitude is a dated or obsolete concept:

“The guilt consisted in the violation of the law, and it never could be pretended that any such violation could be innocent. There were, indeed, many cases in which the most severe punishments attached to offences to which the charge of moral turpitude did not apply, but which were criminal in consequence of the precept of the law. Such were many of the offences against our revenue laws. Not two years ago an act was passed declaring a man guilty of felony, without benefit of clergy, if paper of a certain sort should be found in his possession, this sort of paper being used for the manufacture of bank notes. Now, the reason of this statue was this, that a man could not be presumed to have such paper in his possession but with a criminal intention. Therefore the breach of the act was proof against him.”
(Charles Fox, MP, in Censure of Lord Melville, Hansard, 8 April 1805, House of Commons (UK) Debate, 08 April 1805, vol. 4, cc255-320)

In the USA, moral turpitude is a legal concept still operating in American criminal law. The phrase refers to

‘conduct that is considered contrary to community standards of justice, honesty, or good morals’
(West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, The Gale Group Inc., 1998)

The phrase appears in U.S. immigration law from the 19th century about crimes involving moral turpitude (‘CIMT’) rendering an alien person ineligible for visa or entry to the USA. However, the CIMT condition is at variance with the current U.S. entry stipulations that a visa is required for anyone who has ever been arrested or convicted for any offense (as there are many offences that are not considered to involve moral turpitude).

Like moral turpitude, good moral character is a defined legal concept in U.S. law that details requirements for consideration for certain benefits or position. ‘Good moral character’ is a term chiefly used in U.S. immigration law, and does not necessarily denote to a set of character qualities. Rather, the term describes behaviours in which applicants for entry to or naturalisation in the USA could not have been involved. The term is not limited to immigration use and can also be a requirement for a particular employment position or profession (such as admission to practise law).

Just for kicks and to blow your mind away, the U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual Volume 9 – Visas: 9 FAM 40.21(A) N2 Moral turpitude provides that the following are CIMTs for visa purposes.

N.B. For offences (or arrests on suspicion of such offences) occurring outside the USA, the manual considers the local definitions of offences against U.S. definitions for U.S. immigration purposes and disregards the circumstances of the individual’s actual case.

Crimes against property involving moral turpitude:

  • Arson
  • Blackmail
  • Burglary
  • Embezzlement
  • Fraud: an intent to defraud
  • Fraud: the actual act of committing fraud
  • Fraud: making false representations
  • Fraud: knowledge of such false representations by the perpetrator
  • Fraud: reliance on the false representations by the person defrauded (WTF!)
  • Larcency (grand or petty)
  • Malicious destruction of property
  • Receving stolen goods (with guilty knowledge)
  • Robbery
  • Theft (when it involves the intention of permanent taking)
  • Transporting stolen property (with guilty knowledge)

Crimes against governmental authority involving moral turpitude:

  • Bribery
  • Counterfeiting
  • Fraud against revenue or other government functions
  • Mail fraud
  • Perjury
  • Harbouring a fugitive from justice (with guilty knowledge)
  • Tax evasion (wilful)

Crimes against the person, family relationship and sexual morality involving moral turpitude:

  • Abandonment of a minor child (if wilful and resulting in the destruction of the child)
  • Adultery (see s. 101 Immigration Nationality Act, repealed by U.S. Public Law 97-116)
  • Assault with intent to kill, commit rape, commit robbery or commit serious bodily harm
  • Assault with a dangerous or deadly weapon
  • Bigamy
  • Contributing to the delinquency of a minor
  • Gross indecency
  • Incest (if the result of an improper sexual relationship)
  • Kidnapping
  • Lewdness
  • Manslaughter (voluntary)
  • Manslaughter (involuntary): whereas the statute requires proof of recklessness (which is defined as ‘the awareness and conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustified risk which constitutes a gross deviation from the standard that a reasonable person would observe in the situation’). Note that a conviction for the statutory offence of ‘vehicular homicide’ or other involuntary manslaughter only requires a showing of negligence will not involve moral turpitude even if it appears the defendant in fact acted recklessly.
  • Mayhem (i.e. aggravated battery: intentional maiming of a person)
  • Murder
  • Pandering (i.e. procuring for the purpose of prostitution)
  • Paternity fraud
  • Prostitution
  • Rape, including statutory rape by virtue of the victim’s age
Attempts, aiding and abetting, accessories and conspiracy involving moral turpitude:
  • An attempt to commit a crime deemed to involve moral turpitude
  • Aiding and abetting in the commission of a crime deemed to involve moral turpitude
  • Being an accessory (before or after the fact) in the commission of a crime deemed to involve a moral turpitude
  • Taking part in a conspiracy (or attempting to take part in a conspiracy) to commit a crime involving moral turpitude where the attempted crime would not itself constitute moral turpitude

If all of the above sounds just a bit non compos mentis (‘not of sound mind’) to the rest of us outside the USA, have a look at the same manual’s guidelines on crimes that DON’T involve moral turpitude:

  • Assault (simple), i.e. any assault, which does not require an evil intent or depraved motive, although it may involve the use of  a weapon, which is neither dangerous nor deadly
  • Bastardy (i.e. the offence of begetting a bastard child)
  • Black-market violations
  • Breach of the peace
  • Breaking and entering (requires no specific or implicit intent to commit a crime involving moral turpitude)
  • Carrying a concealed weapon
  • Damaging private property (where intent to damage not required)
  • Desertion from the armed forces
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Driving while licence suspended or revoked
  • Drunk or reckless driving
  • Drunkenness
  • Escape from prison
  • Failure to report for military induction
  • False statements (not amounting to perjury or involving fraud)
  • Firearm violations
  • Gambling violations
  • Immigration violations
  • Incest, when a result of a marital status prohibited by law
  • Joy riding (where the intention to take permanently not required)
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Libel
  • Liquor violations
  • Loan sharking
  • Lottery violations
  • Mailing an obscene letter
  • Mann Act violations, where coercion is not present (i.e. violations of the White-Slave Traffic Act 1910ch. 395, 36 Stat. 825; codified as amended at 18 U.S.C. §§ 2421–2424)
  • Manslaugher (involuntary): when killing is not the result of recklessness
  • Nuisance, creating or maintaining (where knowledge that premises were used for prostitution is not necessary)
  • Possession of burglar tools (without intent to commit burglary)
  • Riot
  • Suicide (attempted)
  • Smuggling and customs violations (where intent to commit fraud is absent)
  • Tax evasion (without intent to defraud)
  • Traffic violations (minor)
  • Trespassing
  • Vagrancy
Is your mind sufficiently evolved to be blown away by that?

Leave a reply and tell us what you think.

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On the face of it, the word unlicensed seems to have a strictly legal meaning — usually in reference to a particular statute or regulation.

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© Learn English or Starve, 2011.

Images: Baby Soft Cosmetics advertisement via The House of Marketing ♦ Dirty hands by Stocksnapper via Cutcaster ♦ Relative morality meter via PlanetPOV.

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