The Moral Consequences of Teleological Beliefs About the Human Species

Casey Lewry, Deborah Kelemen, Tania Lombrozo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Adults in prior work often endorse explanations appealing to purposes (e.g., “pencils exist so people can write with them”), even when these “teleological” explanations are scientifically unwarranted (e.g., “water exists so life can survive on Earth”). We explore teleological endorsement in a novel domain— human purpose—and its relationship to moral judgments. Across studies conducted online with a sample of U.S.-recruited adults, we ask: (a) Do participants believe the human species exists for a purpose? (b) Do these beliefs predict moral condemnation of individuals who fail to fulfill this purpose? And (c) what explains the link between teleological beliefs and moral condemnation? Study 1 found that participants frequently endorsed teleological claims about humans existence (e.g., humans exist to procreate), and these beliefs correlated with moral condemnation of purpose violations (e.g., condemning those who do not procreate). Study 2 found evidence of a bidirectional causal relationship: Stipulating a species’ purpose results in moral condemnation of purpose violations, and stipulating that an action is immoral increases endorsement that the species exists for that purpose. Study 3 found evidence that when participants believe a species exists to perform some action, they infer this action is good for the species, and this in turn supports moral condemnation of individuals who choose not to perform the action. Study 4 found evidence that believing an action is good for the species partially mediates the relationship between human purpose beliefs and moral condemnation. These findings shed light on how our descriptive understanding can shape our prescriptive judgments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3359-3379
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


  • explanation
  • human purpose
  • is–ought fallacy
  • morality
  • teleology


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