From teleology to morality: Why belief in human purpose prompts moral condemnation of individuals who fail to fulfill it

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Conference Proceedings

People often endorse explanations that appeal to purpose, even when these ‘teleological’ explanations are scientifically unwarranted (e.g., “water exists so that life can survive on Earth”). In the present research, we explore teleological endorsement in a novel domain—human purpose—and its relationship to moral judgments. Across four studies, we address three questions: (1) Do people believe the human species exists for a purpose? (2) Do these beliefs drive moral condemnation of individuals who fail to fulfill this purpose? And if so, (3) what explains the link between teleological beliefs and moral condemnation? Study 1 (N=188) found that many adults endorsed anthropic teleology (e.g., that humans exist in order to procreate), and that these beliefs correlated with moral condemnation of purpose violations (e.g., judging those who do not procreate immoral). Study 2 (N=199) found evidence of a bi-directional causal relationship: teleological claims about a species resulted in moral condemnation of purpose violations, and stipulating that an action is immoral increased judgments that the species exists for that purpose. Study 3 (N=94) replicated a causal effect of species-level purpose on moral condemnation with novel actions and more implicit character judgments. Study 4 (N=52) found that when a species is believed to exist to perform some action, participants infer that the action is good for the species, and that this belief in turn supports moral condemnation of individuals who choose not to perform the action. Together, these findings shed light on how our descriptive understanding can shape our prescriptive judgments.


Conference Name
Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society