Moral Contexts vs. Immoral Contexts

As we all know by now, context is important to our moral judgements. We usually cannot know what a morally right or wrong action is without examining context, and an action that is morally right in one context may be wrong in another and vice-versa.

Usually, in these cases what I’m talking about is a specific context, and context specificity is important, but we can also look at contexts more broadly.

One of the ways we can do this is to differentiate between morality in “immoral” and “moral” contexts.

Defining Our Terms

What do I mean by “immoral” vs. “moral” contexts?

Immoral Contexts: When I, and other philosophers speak about “immoral” contexts, what we mean is a context in which immorality is normalized and widespread. People are not shamed for their immoral actions, and do not face punishment. People may not even recognize that their immoral actions are, in fact, immoral in these contexts. Societies which kept slaves are one example of this.

Moral Contexts: Conversely, being in a moral context does not mean that everyone behaves morally all the time. Moral contexts merely require that most people behave morally, and that those who do not are shamed, punished, and/or widely recognized as immoral by their peers, neighbors, etc.

While we can imagine contexts that are simultaneously moral and immoral in different ways, for the purposes of this blog I’m going to assume that if this is true, the immoral context wins and is the signifier.

Differentiating from Moral Relativism

Now, you might ask, how do we know when we are in an immoral context?

Here, it is important to note that immoral contexts are different from the idea of Moral Relativism. In fact, Moral Relativism is directly opposed to the idea of an “immoral context”, as it would state that the morality of your actions is dependent on your action’s alignment with the moral rules context in which they occur.  However, with the immoral/moral thesis, the context does not excuse your actions, and in fact, in immoral contexts you may have additional duties you might not have had otherwise (such as to educate your peers on the fact that they exist in an immoral context). Under Moral Relativism you would have no such duties.

Immoral Contexts, Moral Contexts & Privacy

One of the interesting areas where I think that considering things in immoral and moral contexts changes things is Privacy. Now, privacy is something that we generally think of as a right. In the past, I’ve argued that it is a largely unnecessary right, which is contrary to many popular opinions.

However, when thinking about immoral and moral contexts, I need to clarify my position. I think that privacy is a largely unnecessary right in a moral context. I will explain why:

Firstly, as I imagine it (and I may be wrong, let me know in the comments if you think I am!) there are two reasons why one might desire privacy.

  1. To avoid punishment for something one is doing in private.
  2. To avoid embarrassment for something one is doing in private.

The first case breaks down further into two more categories, as one might wish to avoid punishment for something one is doing that is morally wrong, or avoid punishment for something that is societally taboo.

If we go down a level further and ask ourselves what things are societally taboo we end up going in two directions: one direction is back up to the first level, where the thing is societally taboo because it is immoral (if perhaps not illegal), or because society has its head up its own ass and is mislabeling something perfectly natural.

When is privacy valuable?

Privacy is valuable only in the last of those cases. In all other cases it merely serves to protect immoral actors from facing consequences for their actions.

So what is an example of the last of those cases?

A recent Canadian example is the conflict over whether or not students who join gay-straight alliances in Alberta public schools should be “outed” to their parents. Obviously, not all students who join these alliances are LGTBQ+, but a fair number of them are. Furthermore, children are a group which has some of the least privacy because of our ideas surrounding parenting and what rights parents have to know everything about their children. And yet, in this case, I agree that these children should have their privacy.


Because LGTBQ+ people exist in an immoral context. That is not to say that they are immoral, but rather the opposite. People, and society still behave immorally around them. Parents eject LGTBQ+ children from their homes and deny them the necessities of life. Peers tease, bully, and marginalize them. Other people’s actions towards them are immoral, and worse than that those actions of discrimination are still in many ways normalized. We are starting to get away from the acceptability of such things, but not fast enough. As such, LGTBQ+ should be able to protect themselves from immoral contexts through privacy surrounding their sexuality/sexual orientation/gender if they so decide.

If we existed in a moral context in regards to discrimination against LGTBQ+ peoples, where violence and discrimination against them was not normalized, condoned, or widespread, then there would be no need for privacy.

Closing Thoughts on Privacy

The key thing about privacy, is that if people judge you for non-immoral things you do in private, and act on those judgements about you in a way that harms you (e.g. by depriving you of the chance to participate in something, get a job, etc.), they are likely acting immorally. We can’t always prevent or deter people from acting immorally in immoral contexts because that way of acting is normalized but in moral contexts we can deter and prevent people from doing so.

So, how do we move from immoral contexts to moral ones?

We stop the normalization of immoral actions. Individuals can’t do this on a societal level, but we can do it on an individual one. Don’t tolerate racist remarks from your whacky uncle, shun friends who make transphobic jokes. Call people out, even if its a majority of people. Do not let the space around you be one where widely accepted immorality is tolerated. Resist moral relativism. Resist.

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