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Course: LSAT (DEPRECATED) > Unit 1

Lesson 10: Reading Comprehension - Worked Examples

Law passage overview | Cosmic Justice (paired passages)

Watch a demonstration of how to approach a pair of comparative reading passages about law on the LSAT reading comprehension section. Created by Dave Travis.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Here are two paired passages that fall into the law category of reading on the LSAT. In a minute I'll just jump right in with a close reading of the passages, and afterwards I'll sum up the main points and features of each passage. You'll notice that as I read, I'll pay close attention to the topic sentences of each paragraph, and sometimes rephrase them to make sure I understand what the paragraph is about to do. Usually the rest of the paragraph supports and develops the claim made in the first sentence. I also like to circle words and phrases that signal contrasts, and words and phrases that signal continuations. I find that this helps me follow the argument, as well as break up big fat paragraphs into smaller, more digestible chunks. There are many different ways to annotate a passage, and different things work better for different people, so we definitely want to encourage you to try different strategies as you work through your own LSAT prep program, and choose a system that works best for you. In addition to circling and underlining stuff, I'll also sometimes jot quick notes to myself like pluses or minuses, question marks, sometimes exclamation points, even smiley faces. One additional benefit of this method is that it leaves me a record of where to find different things in the passage. If I note the structure of the passages as I go along, it's usually easier to locate what I need when I'm answering the questions. One last thing to remember here, as you read, don't waste your time or energy thinking about what you personally might think about the ideas that are being presented. If you start forming an opinion about what you're reading, the chances are good that it's gonna get in the way while you answer the questions. The same goes for any outside experience or knowledge that you might have about the topic that's being discussed. Try to keep any preconceptions out of your head. Your job here is just to understand what the passages are saying. Don't do any extra brain work to develop an opinion, or start arguing in your mind with the points the author is making. Okay here we go. Passage A discusses the views of the economist and political thinker Thomas Sowell. Passage B is adapted from an article by Sowell. Okay so that's an important distinction to make. Passage B is actually written by the man whose views are discussed in passage A. So let's keep that in mind as we read. Passage A. Cosmic justice, as Sowell uses the term, refers to the perfect justice that only an omniscient being could render, rewards and punishments that are truly deserved when all relevant things are properly taken into consideration. Okay so this is about cosmic justice, and it's starting to define what cosmic justice is. Inherent human limitations however, okay, so here's our contrast in meaning, make it impossible to achieve this type of justice through human law, even though many times it seems that people are arguing for such justice and promote polices they think will render it through our human laws. Okay so let's take a break and just make sure we understand what's going on here. The passage is discussing the way that Thomas Sowell uses the term cosmic justice, and it goes on to try to define that term. It's the perfect justice. Cosmic justice is perfect justice that only an omniscient being could render. So we're not omniscient beings, so maybe we can't render perfect justice. Okay, but our limitations, our human limitations, make it impossible to achieve this type of justice through human law. Okay, so cosmic justice is impossible through human law. I think I got it, let's keep on moving. But, we have our however, but our human legal systems should not try to dispense cosmic justice since we do not know all the critical relevant facts or understand all the complex causal interrelationships involved or even know definitively what cosmic justice really is. Okay, so cosmic justice, not worth trying to do, because we're not omniscient beings, and we should not try to dispense cosmic justice, okay, because we can't know everything all at once. Whether somebody truly deserves something is a very difficult thing for us to determine. For one thing, we are not knowledgeable enough about the person and situation, or smart enough, even if we knew what all the critical factors were, to perform the complicated calculus necessary to understand how the complex interrelationships among the various variables should affect our ultimate conclusions. Okay that's another big fat sentence, but basically it's saying we are not knowledgeable enough to know everything, and to know all the critical factors. We can't do that, and because we can't do that, we shouldn't even try. Let's move on. Deservedness necessarily focuses on a consideration of inputs. An omniscient being is capable of perfectly considering all these things, but we are not. But we are not. With all the limitations that we face as mere humans, the best we can reasonably do is judge primarily based on outputs, or consequences, rather than inputs. So there's a focus here, inputs which we cannot know, and outputs which we should base our judgments on, because we cannot know all the inputs. Okay great, let's move on. Passage B, and if you remember, this is written by Thomas Sowell himself, or it's adapted from some of his writings. Cosmic justice is not simply a higher degree of traditional justice. It is a fundamentally different concept. So we're comparing traditional justice with cosmic justice in this first opening sentence. Traditionally, 'cause that's our traditional justice. Traditionally, justice or injustice is characteristic of a process. That's italicized so I'm gonna probably underline it so I italicize it in my brain. A defendant in a criminal case would be said to have received justice if the trial were conducted as it should be, under fair rules and with an impartial judge and jury. So we have trial conducted under fair rules and with an impartial judge and jury. After such a trial, it could be said that, quote, justice was done, regardless of the outcome. Conversely, okay we have our contrast here. Conversely, if the trial were conducted in violation of the rules and with a judge or jury showing prejudice against the defendant, this would be considered an unfair or unjust trial, even if the prosecutor failed to convince the jury to convict an innocent person. In short, traditional justice is about impartial processes, rather than either results or prospects. Okay so in short, so here he sums it up. Traditional justice, which is what this first paragraph was about, is about impartial processes, processes being the operative word here, rather than either results or prospects. It's about trying to create a fair system. On the other hand, cosmic justice, okay we have another contrast, and now this paragraph is gonna be about cosmic justice. Foolishly, okay so this is, we don't like cosmic justice. Foolishly seeks to correct, not only biased or discriminatory acts by individuals or social institutions, but unmerited disadvantages in general, from whatever source they may arise. Okay so the author is saying that it is foolish to attempt to correct unmerited disadvantages in general through our justice system. In criminal trials, for example, so here's an example, before a murderer is sentenced, the law permits his traumatic childhood to be taken into account. Seldom is there any claim that the person murdered had anything to do with that traumatic childhood. It is only from a cosmic perspective that it could have any bearing on the crime. Okay, so, should the traumatic childhood have any bearing on the crime? Thomas Sowell is saying no, it shouldn't have any bearing on the crime. If punishment is meant to deter crime, then in mitigating that punishment in pursuit of cosmic justice, by saying, you know, we would mitigate that punishment to say, oh the traumatic childhood led them to create this act, so we should mitigate, or lessen, the punishment. The author of this passage is arguing against this. Mitigating that punishment in pursuit of cosmic justice presumably reduces that deterrence and allows more crime to take place at the expense of innocent people. Okay so that's it. If you'd like to, you can just head to the questions now, but I'm going to take a couple more minutes here to sum up the passages. Both passages are about Thomas Sowell's concept of cosmic justice, and why he thinks it should not be pursued. Passage A is from an article that discusses Sowell's views, and passage B is actually written by Sowell himself. It's pretty important to fix that contrast in your head. These paired passages are a great example of comparative reading sets that cover a topic in a nonconflicting way. Often paired passages disagree in a straightforward way, but it can be a bit more challenging when the views presented by the passages overlap in some ways, but are distinct in others. In this case, passage A introduces Sowell's views, and in passage B, Sowell himself elaborates on one particular feature of his views by contrasting traditional process-oriented justice with the more holistic, and thus more problematic, conception of cosmic justice. So let's go up and have a close look and just review if you want to stick around. Let's do this. According to the author of passage A, Sowell claims that cosmic justice is a kind of perfect justice that requires knowing and taking into account every possible relevant factor. But we're told that only a magical, all-knowing being could render this kind of justice, and so it's impossible for human beings to do it. Why? Well, according to Sowell, we can never actually know all the relevant facts and how they are all causally interrelated, and he calls all those relevant facts inputs. That is, all the stuff that leads up to a choice being made or a crime being committed. So, Sowell says that our legal system shouldn't ever even try to dispense cosmic justice. Now the passage closes by saying that according to Sowell, the best that a legal system can hope to do is to make judgments based on outputs. In other words, all we can do is create a consistent set of consequences for certain specific crimes. Our justice system should be fair about what happens as a punishment when the specific law is broken, but we shouldn't attempt to modify that punishment, that outcome, or that output, according to some set of nebulous, cosmic assumptions about what might or might not have led to the crime. So let's keep on moving through here. In passage B, we hear directly from Sowell himself, but it's not just about what he thinks cosmic justice is. In this passage, Sowell contrasts cosmic justice with traditional justice. According to Sowell, traditional justice is about having a fair process. So we can say that a defendant has received justice if the trial was conducted under fair rules and with an impartial judge and jury. Sowell goes on to, in the second paragraph, to talk about cosmic justice. And he criticizes, or he critiques those who subscribe to cosmic justice because they try to incorporate into a verdict all sorts of extra stuff that might be considered unfortunate about a person's upbringing, the traumatic childhood mentioned here. Sowell disagrees with this approach. It's critical to understand that Sowell believes that the traumatic childhood of a murderer should not be considered as a mitigating factor in the trial or in the sentencing. According to Sowell, justice should only concern itself with whether the process is fair. Okay that's the summary. Let's go ahead and tackle the questions.