Attitudes That Matter

Uku Tooming holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Tartu. His doctoral thesis examines the communicative significance of beliefs and desires.

It often matters to us what other people believe and want. This is apparent in everyday interactions, in gossip and in debates, in domestic life, and in a meeting of strangers.

Knowledge about the beliefs and desires of others is a form of basic social knowledge because these attitudes express a person’s take on the world: from the perspective of their possessor, beliefs are about what is the case and desires are about what should be the case.

It is noticeable that such knowledge matters to us as social animals: already the fact that another person believes or wants something, especially if one disagrees with it, might bring about strong affective reactions in us. Why is that? I am not asking here about the psychological mechanisms which ground our reactions to others’ attitudes. This is a philosophical question of why we should care about these attitudes and how this relates to our practical interests more generally. Questions about why something is important are admittedly quite imprecise but still worth inquiring into, for the sake of reflective self-understanding.

There are at least three answers to our question which do not necessarily exclude one another. According to the first, knowing others’ attitudes matters to us because these attitudes have behavioural consequences, at least potentially, which might be contrary to our interests. This can’t be the whole story, however, because others’ attitudes seem to matter even in cases when we haven’t got a clear idea what actions would follow from these attitudes (That being said, predictions of action that the awareness of attitudes enables can’t be dismissed as a negligible benefit of attitude attributions).


The second answer is that without knowing what others believe or desire, we are unable to judge whether they are sincere in what they say. The lack of such an ability would preclude us from recognizing liars and deceivers. This is a more promising answer. That being said, this can’t be the whole story about their importance either. We also are interested in what people believe and want when we don’t have any doubts about whether they are sincere in what they speak. In fact, they don’t need to have said anything at all. In addition, it isn’t clear that we can distinguish sincere from insincere utterances only by attributing underlying beliefs and desires; behavioural cues can often be enough.

According to the third answer, which I defended in my PhD thesis, others’ beliefs and desires matters to us because they appear to us as a confirmation of or challenge to our own perspective on the world, depending on whether we agree or disagree with them. As I’ve already pointed out, beliefs are about what is the case and desires are about what should be the case, and since one has one’s own beliefs and desires, these may conform to or conflict with those of another person.

Because of that, the primary importance of knowing others’ attitudes is that on this basis we can react to them in such specific ways: we can agree or disagree with them, endorse or disapprove them. The awareness that another person has certain beliefs and desires already demands at least an implicit response from us.

In my thesis, I explored the implications of the third answer, the details of which I don’t intend to go into further. What I want to explore here briefly are situations in which there is an inequality between two persons who are aware of each other’s incompatible attitudes.

In such cases, we are justified to assume that the agent in an inferior position is inclined to give up her attitude and to adopt that of her superior. Support for this assumption comes from the models of cultural transmission where prestige is a crucial variable in determining whose attitudes get the upper hand in an interaction. In ideal conditions, people would adopt only those beliefs and desires which they take to be well-grounded. The reality of social situations, however, tends to prevent such ideal conditions from ever being realized. The social power of an agent thus pushes other people to adopt her attitudes.

yes-i-have-signed-itEven if the person in an inferior position manages to stick to her guns and maintain her original attitude, she would feel resentment towards another who has the belief or desire with which she disagrees. Resentment in this context is a feeling of powerlessness, which is due to the inability to do anything about another’s incompatible attitude.

In fact, resentment can remain also after one has adopted another’s attitude, because in such a case one feels that one did not have any control over the process of adoption. The person in an inferior position is stuck in a doubly uncomfortable situation: either she is inclined to maintain one’s initial attitude and to feel resentment due to not being able to influence another’s beliefs and desires, or she is disposed to adopt another’s attitude and feel resentment due to not being able to control this process.

What should be kept in mind, however, is that these considerations about control also apply to a person in a superior social position, at least to some extent. If another person has a resentful attitude towards me, due to my having beliefs and desires that she can’t influence or due to her having adopted my beliefs and desires without any rational deliberation on her part, my power to control her resentful attitude involves a high chance of failure.

Especially problematic are contexts in which another person has adopted my attitude, but feels resentment, because in such cases she is alienated from her attitude and would probably forsake it at the first opportunity. After all, she has adopted it only because another, more powerful, person has it, not because it seems well-grounded to her. The person in a superior position thus can’t be fully secure in his power to control the other. In a somewhat perverse way, then, resentment can also involve a form of social power, power of the weak, so to speak.

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