The Machinery of Morality

Part Of: Demystifying Ethics sequence
Content Summary: 1000 words, 10 min read

Propriety Frames

Main Article: An Introduction To Propriety Frames

The primate brain contains a diverse set of memory structures. For example, episodic and semantic memory store narratives and facts, respectively.

Propriety frames are a memory format that retains social intuitions. This form of memory permits normative judgments, or which behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate.

Propriety frames are organized by situational context. A Restaurant frame provides the social intuitions for restaurant interactions. Frames are the substrate of rituals.

Frames are organized hierarchically to promote reuse. For example, the Eating frame is relevant in contexts besides restaurant dining.

Propriety Frames- Restaurant Example (2)

When a mother instructs her son to not yell in the store, the child installs an update to his Shopping frame. When a family exchanges gossip around a campfire, they are doing so in part to synchronize their propriety frames.

Intuition Generators

The contents of our social intuitions is not arbitrary. Our environment does not fully determine our moral sense. The brain also possesses innate social intuition generators, which contribute to the contents of social judgments.

As outlined in Moral Foundations theory, there are six such generators: authority, care, loyalty, fairness, autonomy, and sanctity.

People are genetically and environmentally disposed to respond to certain generators more strongly than others. Let social matrices be the emotional intensities elicited by each generator.

People with similar matrices tend to gravitate towards similar political parties. When you measure the social matrices of American citizens, you can see large differences between the social intuitions of Democrats and Republicans.

Theory of Normatives- Social Matrices by Political Party (1)

These differences in social matrices explain much of American politics.

  • Why do Democrats praise entitlements, but Republicans denounce them? Because Democrats heavily emphasize Care for the poor, whereas Republicans more strongly reverberate to questions of Fairness (exploitation and moral hazard).
  • Why are Democrats more skeptical of patriotism than their Republican counterparts? Perhaps because they respond to Loyalty to country less.

For more information, see Graham et al (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations.

Generators vs Frames

Main Article: A Dual-Process Theory of Moral Judgment

Two mechanisms contribute to social intuitions: propriety frames, and intuition generators.

Theory of Normatives- Frame vs Generator (1)

Generators are located subcortically, and thus produce intuitions quickly and automatically. Frames are stored in the cortical mantle, and are thus slower, and more amenable to conscious awareness.

As the work of Joshua Greene shows, deontological (rule-based) attitudes are generated rapidly; whereas consequential theories of morality are slower and more vulnerable to distraction. This suggests a relatively straightforward mapping:

  • People with a deontological style rely more heavily on their Generators.
  • People with a consequentialist style lean instead on their Frames.

Frames and Generators can influence one another, albeit slowly. Moral argumentation can change one’s mind, and these frame updates can percolate down to change one’s social matrices (intuition weights). Call this frame internalization.

Similarly, if one’s private intuitions diverge from a culturally inherited norm, that frame can be updated to be more consistent with one’s personality. Call this frame refinement.

For more information, see Cushman, Young, Greene (2010). Our multi-system moral psychology: Towards a consensus view

Cultural Regimes

Human communities generate emergent networks known as cultural regimes. These emerge as distinct categories of frames and intuition generators.

regime categories

Language made regime accretion possible. No longer is expertise confined to the skull of the individual. No longer is death a Full Restart button. Our species sends cultural expertise down through the generations.  This knowledge – these frames – have become increasingly sophisticated over the course of human history.

Hominid evolution has also seen the advent of regime diversification. Modern religions (of the Axial Age) were successful because they improved on our ability to trust strangers. This in turn dramatically increased the size of feasible social groups.

Theory of Normativity- Evolution of Regimes (3)

Moral Tagging

We have so far only been speaking about social attitudes (should / should not). What about moral attitudes (good / evil)?

Moral attitudes are nothing more than a kind of social attitude. I know of no moral attitude that can be divorced from a social context.

Moral attitudes are constructed by moral tagging, which endows a subset of social attitudes with anger and disgust reactions (as opposed to the more typical reputation appraisal, gossiping, shaming).

Further, moral tagging produces appraisal inflexibility. Moral violations are viewed as wrong everywhere, in every context. This is in contrast to other social violations, for which it is easier to see circumstances in which the behavior would seem less bad.

The boundary between Virtuous and Tolerable is smooth, reflecting the flexibility of our intuition generators. In contrast, the boundary between Tolerable and Intolerable is sharp.

Moral Flinch- Latitudes of Acceptance (2)
A similar distinction appears amidst disagreement. There are two kinds of ways people’s judgments can diverge:

  • Moral disagreement: is a given behavior Evil?
  • Social disagreement: is a given behavior Inappropriate?

moral vs social disagreement

For more information, see Tetlock et al (2000). The psychology of the unthinkable: taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals.

Norm Synchronization

The space of possible social intuitions is vast. However, group living only became possible with relatively homogenous norms. How do individual brains synchronize propriety frames and social matrices within a group?

At least four mechanisms provide norm synchronization.

  • Natural language and facial expressions are used to communicate social and emotional information.
  • Reputation systems benefit social beings who are especially adept at learning & conforming to the frames of their peers.
  • First-order punishment emotions (anger at transgressor) incentivizes people to not violate implicit societal expectations.
  • Second-order punishment (anger at those who are accepting of transgressor) incentivize a community to respond to, and develop a unified response to, dyadic disagreements.


  • In Propriety Frames, we saw how the brain retains social information.
  • Limbic machinery, such as the Care module, generate normative intuitions.
  • Generators and frames interact to facilitate both top-down and bottom-up learning.
  • A subset of social violations are tagged as morally intolerable.
  • Several emotion devices work to consolidate normatives within a group. 

Related Work

  • Graham, Haidt, Nosek (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations.
  • Cushman, Young, Greene (2010). Our multi-system moral psychology: Towards a consensus view
  • Tetlock et al (2000). The psychology of the unthinkable: taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals.



2 thoughts on “The Machinery of Morality

  1. “I know of no moral attitude that can be divorced from a social context.”

    How would you relate this statement to things like Jewish food prohibitions and “immoral thoughts”?


    1. Hey Travis! Thanks for the question. 🙂 These exchanges are a helpful exercise, for me.

      I think these cases might be resolved by noting that my notion of social attitude refers to “behavioral attitudes that are tied to social influences”, rather than “attitudes that are relevant in multi-person settings”.

      Jewish food prohibitions are a particular Eating frame that stem from a social community that cares about such behavior. We can say that certain “casual” believers view dietary violations as Inappropriate but Tolerable, whereas for more “fundamentalist” believers this same behavior is tagged as Evil.

      To my mind, immoral thoughts (e.g., Sermon on the Mount) also stem from a social community, and thoughts do count as a kind of behavior (see my work on Perception-Action loops). While most normatives are regulated externally (shame) and internally (guilt), thought normatives provide only the vehicle of internal regulation.

      I do worry that my conception of Propriety Frames (or “frame memory” in much of the social psych literature) explains too much. I look forward to the day when I can cash out all of these notions within biological mechanism.

      Here is an edge case whose explanation I find the most problematic: people raised in complete social isolation. In what sense do these people truly develop social normatives? Perhaps their experience of normatives is internally generated in fragments, analogous to pidgin languages? But given that social isolation correlates with mental illness, perhaps my difficulty understanding this phenomena is to be expected.

      Added a few references to the above article, in case you’d like to dive further. Cheers.


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