Frames: Evaluative vs. interventionist

Let’s suppose someone asks you if they’re fat. Not wanting to offend them, you say that they aren’t. Technically that’s a lie, although some would say that it’s a white lie. We could argue about whether you’re acting ethically by trying to protect their feelings or whether we have an obligation to level with them.

In his book Lying, Sam Harris explains when a friend asked him that question he said, “No-one would ever call you fat, but I think you could afford to lose 25 pounds”. This sidesteps the question by providing a third alternative.

In the first paragraph, we were considering the situation from an evaluative standpoint. We imagine someone has told a white lie and it cannot be changed. The event has already occurred, it’s in the past now. There’s no opportunity to go back in time and provide advice on how it could have been handled better.

In the second paragraph, we were considering the situation from an interventionist standpoint. We are trying to figure out the best thing that they could have done if we were able to provide them advice, even if we couldn’t necessarily have expected them to think of it at the time.

Both of these frames are useful in particular circumstances. The first frame is useful when we have to make a judgement. So if someone was arrested for stealing bread, we have to decide whether to punish them or let them go - the fact that a bakery a few blocks away which they didn’t know about was giving away its leftovers that day isn’t very relevant. But if food is going to be an ongoing issue and the bakery does it at the end of every week, then the second frame is useful for figuring improving the situation moving forward.

In a recent conversation I felt like we were talking past each other because I was suggesting examining certain situations from an evaluative standpoint, while she was viewing it from an interventionist perspective. I suspect that her perspective was that the people had better options in the hypothetical situations so why not take them, while I was suggesting it might be fruitful to just imagine that someone had already acted that way and that it was up to us to evaluate it.