LSAT Reading : Comparative Reading

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for LSAT Reading

varsity tutors app store varsity tutors android store

Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Comparative Reading

Passage adapted from G. C. Field's Moral Theory: an introduction (1921)

Moral Philosophy, as here conceived, is a criticism of our moral categories. We all know more or less what a moral judgment is, and we are all, of course, constantly making them. So-and-so is a good (or a bad) man, such-and-such an action is right (or wrong), are two types of the commonest forms of them. In such judgments, we use the ideas, or, to adopt our phraseology, the categories of good or bad, right or wrong. And in ordinary moral thinking we do not criticize these categories. Our interest then is centred in the question whether these or similar judgments are true or not. Is so-and-so a good man? Is this action right or wrong? We assume that there is something which we can call good or right, and we ask where it is present, what men or actions are good or right. But in Philosophy we shift our centre of interest. We are no longer concerned primarily with the question whether, for instance, any particular action is right or wrong; the question that we raise as moral philosophers is, “What does 'good' or 'right' mean?” That is, we are engaged in examining and criticizing our moral categories themselves, instead of, as in ordinary thinking, using and applying them in particular cases.

Passage adapted from James Seth, A Study of Ethical Principles (1898)

Ethics is the science of morality or conduct. It is accordingly often called practical, as opposed to theoretical, philosophy or metaphysics. The description is correct, if it is meant that ethics is the philosophy or theory of practice. It suggests, however, the question of the relations of moral theory and practice. Life or practice always precedes its theory or explanation; we are men before we are moralists. The moral life, though it implies an intellectual element from the first, is, in its beginnings, and for long, a matter of instinct, of tradition, of authority. The conceptions of good and evil, virtue and vice, duty and desert, which guide the life, not merely of the child but of the mass of mankind, are largely accepted, like intellectual notions, in blind and unquestioning faith. But moral, like intellectual, manhood implies emancipation from such a merely instinctive life; moral maturity brings with it reflection upon the meaning of life. The good man, like the wise man, puts away childish things; as a rational being, he must seek to reduce his life, like his world, to system. The contradictions and rivalries of ethical codes, the varying canons of moral criticism, the apparent chaos of moral practice, force upon him the need of a moral theory. This demand for a rationale of morality, for principles which shall give his life coherence, marks the transition from the practical to the theoretical standpoint, from life itself to its theoretic understanding.

Which of the following would best help to reconcile the views of the two authors regarding the purpose of moral philosophy?

Possible Answers:

Only a unified system of ethics, springing from axiomatic principles, can guide right action.

No right action can be taken without first understanding the theoretical basis for that action.

Prephilosophical, conventional forms of morality are useful for analyzing and example, but are useless for properly understanding ethics.

One must understand the meanings of key terms before one can begin to look into their natures.

No right action can ever be accomplished without first analyzing it against a background of universalizable principles.

Correct answer:

One must understand the meanings of key terms before one can begin to look into their natures.

Explanation:

Given that both authors concede that intuitive, conventional forms of morality can guide right action—even if the reasons why are unclear, not understood, or unsystematic—it is extremely unlikely that either, much less both, would believe that no right action could come from conventional or unanalyzed moral systems. Furthermore, only the second passage makes any mention of giving ethics unity; however, both passages discuss the need to understand certain key terms and concepts before delving into further philosophical analysis.

Example Question #1 : Agreement Between Authors

Passage adapted from G. C. Field's Moral Theory: an introduction (1921)

Moral Philosophy, as here conceived, is a criticism of our moral categories. We all know more or less what a moral judgment is, and we are all, of course, constantly making them. So-and-so is a good (or a bad) man, such-and-such an action is right (or wrong), are two types of the commonest forms of them. In such judgments, we use the ideas, or, to adopt our phraseology, the categories of good or bad, right or wrong. And in ordinary moral thinking we do not criticize these categories. Our interest then is centred in the question whether these or similar judgments are true or not. Is so-and-so a good man? Is this action right or wrong? We assume that there is something which we can call good or right, and we ask where it is present, what men or actions are good or right. But in Philosophy we shift our centre of interest. We are no longer concerned primarily with the question whether, for instance, any particular action is right or wrong; the question that we raise as moral philosophers is, “What does 'good' or 'right' mean?” That is, we are engaged in examining and criticizing our moral categories themselves, instead of, as in ordinary thinking, using and applying them in particular cases.

Passage adapted from James Seth, A Study of Ethical Principles (1898)

Ethics is the science of morality or conduct. It is accordingly often called practical, as opposed to theoretical, philosophy or metaphysics. The description is correct, if it is meant that ethics is the philosophy or theory of practice. It suggests, however, the question of the relations of moral theory and practice. Life or practice always precedes its theory or explanation; we are men before we are moralists. The moral life, though it implies an intellectual element from the first, is, in its beginnings, and for long, a matter of instinct, of tradition, of authority. The conceptions of good and evil, virtue and vice, duty and desert, which guide the life, not merely of the child but of the mass of mankind, are largely accepted, like intellectual notions, in blind and unquestioning faith. But moral, like intellectual, manhood implies emancipation from such a merely instinctive life; moral maturity brings with it reflection upon the meaning of life. The good man, like the wise man, puts away childish things; as a rational being, he must seek to reduce his life, like his world, to system. The contradictions and rivalries of ethical codes, the varying canons of moral criticism, the apparent chaos of moral practice, force upon him the need of a moral theory. This demand for a rationale of morality, for principles which shall give his life coherence, marks the transition from the practical to the theoretical standpoint, from life itself to its theoretic understanding.

The passage suggests that the authors of both passages would likely agree on which of the following points?

Possible Answers:

Most actions are guided by a conventional sort of pre-philosophical morality.

By following pre-philosophical forms of morality, people have only caused conflicts that could have been avoided.

Pre-philosophical forms of conventional morality are misguided and wrong.

Ethics is primarily practical in its aim—that it, it seeks to guide the practicioner in their actions.

Moral philosophy represents a sort of maturity on the part of the ethicist, a desire to move beyond "childish" forms of conventional morality.

Correct answer:

Most actions are guided by a conventional sort of pre-philosophical morality.

Explanation:

Neither author claims that pre-philosophical or conventional forms of morality are necessarily false; indeed, both agree that most people follow a sort of conventional morality, and that this guides their action. Moral philosophy, however, has a different purpose than simply guiding everyday actions to both authors, though the two differ as to exactly what its purpose is.

Example Question #1 : Common Elements Of Two Passages

Passage adapted from G. C. Field's Moral Theory: an introduction (1921)

Moral Philosophy, as here conceived, is a criticism of our moral categories. We all know more or less what a moral judgment is, and we are all, of course, constantly making them. So-and-so is a good (or a bad) man, such-and-such an action is right (or wrong), are two types of the commonest forms of them. In such judgments, we use the ideas, or, to adopt our phraseology, the categories of good or bad, right or wrong. And in ordinary moral thinking we do not criticize these categories. Our interest then is centred in the question whether these or similar judgments are true or not. Is so-and-so a good man? Is this action right or wrong? We assume that there is something which we can call good or right, and we ask where it is present, what men or actions are good or right. But in Philosophy we shift our centre of interest. We are no longer concerned primarily with the question whether, for instance, any particular action is right or wrong; the question that we raise as moral philosophers is, “What does 'good' or 'right' mean?” That is, we are engaged in examining and criticizing our moral categories themselves, instead of, as in ordinary thinking, using and applying them in particular cases.

Passage adapted from James Seth, A Study of Ethical Principles (1898)

Ethics is the science of morality or conduct. It is accordingly often called practical, as opposed to theoretical, philosophy or metaphysics. The description is correct, if it is meant that ethics is the philosophy or theory of practice. It suggests, however, the question of the relations of moral theory and practice. Life or practice always precedes its theory or explanation; we are men before we are moralists. The moral life, though it implies an intellectual element from the first, is, in its beginnings, and for long, a matter of instinct, of tradition, of authority. The conceptions of good and evil, virtue and vice, duty and desert, which guide the life, not merely of the child but of the mass of mankind, are largely accepted, like intellectual notions, in blind and unquestioning faith. But moral, like intellectual, manhood implies emancipation from such a merely instinctive life; moral maturity brings with it reflection upon the meaning of life. The good man, like the wise man, puts away childish things; as a rational being, he must seek to reduce his life, like his world, to system. The contradictions and rivalries of ethical codes, the varying canons of moral criticism, the apparent chaos of moral practice, force upon him the need of a moral theory. This demand for a rationale of morality, for principles which shall give his life coherence, marks the transition from the practical to the theoretical standpoint, from life itself to its theoretic understanding.

Both passages are primarily concerned with answering which of the following questions?

Possible Answers:

What is the relationship between theroretical philosophy and action?

What is the purpose of moral philosophy?

What are the defects in everyday conventional moral thinking?

What distinguishes ethics from other branches of philosophy?

Is the study of ethics necessary in order to act morally?

Correct answer:

What is the purpose of moral philosophy?

Explanation:

While both passages do mention some of the problems of conventional forms of morality, addressing these problems is not the primary purpose of both passages; rather, introducing the purpose and scope of philosophical ethics is. While the other noncredited responses are parts of this explanation in one passage or the other, they cannot be properly called the primary purpose of both.

Example Question #2 : Comparative Reading

Passage adapted from G. C. Field's Moral Theory: an introduction (1921)

Moral Philosophy, as here conceived, is a criticism of our moral categories. We all know more or less what a moral judgment is, and we are all, of course, constantly making them. So-and-so is a good (or a bad) man, such-and-such an action is right (or wrong), are two types of the commonest forms of them. In such judgments, we use the ideas, or, to adopt our phraseology, the categories of good or bad, right or wrong. And in ordinary moral thinking we do not criticize these categories. Our interest then is centred in the question whether these or similar judgments are true or not. Is so-and-so a good man? Is this action right or wrong? We assume that there is something which we can call good or right, and we ask where it is present, what men or actions are good or right. But in Philosophy we shift our centre of interest. We are no longer concerned primarily with the question whether, for instance, any particular action is right or wrong; the question that we raise as moral philosophers is, “What does 'good' or 'right' mean?” That is, we are engaged in examining and criticizing our moral categories themselves, instead of, as in ordinary thinking, using and applying them in particular cases.

Passage adapted from James Seth, A Study of Ethical Principles (1898)

Ethics is the science of morality or conduct. It is accordingly often called practical, as opposed to theoretical, philosophy or metaphysics. The description is correct, if it is meant that ethics is the philosophy or theory of practice. It suggests, however, the question of the relations of moral theory and practice. Life or practice always precedes its theory or explanation; we are men before we are moralists. The moral life, though it implies an intellectual element from the first, is, in its beginnings, and for long, a matter of instinct, of tradition, of authority. The conceptions of good and evil, virtue and vice, duty and desert, which guide the life, not merely of the child but of the mass of mankind, are largely accepted, like intellectual notions, in blind and unquestioning faith. But moral, like intellectual, manhood implies emancipation from such a merely instinctive life; moral maturity brings with it reflection upon the meaning of life. The good man, like the wise man, puts away childish things; as a rational being, he must seek to reduce his life, like his world, to system. The contradictions and rivalries of ethical codes, the varying canons of moral criticism, the apparent chaos of moral practice, force upon him the need of a moral theory. This demand for a rationale of morality, for principles which shall give his life coherence, marks the transition from the practical to the theoretical standpoint, from life itself to its theoretic understanding.

Which of the following best describes the key difference between the two passages?

Possible Answers:

Passage 1 approaches its subject largely through logic and linguistics; passage 2, through metaphysics and the nature of things.

Passage 1 describes moral philosophy as chiefly speculative; passage 2, as primarily practical.

Passage 1 describes moral philosophy as a chiefly speculative exercise; passage 2, as both practical and speculative.

Passage 1 views morality as a practical exercise in general practice; passage 2 views it as practical as a philosophical discipline.

The first passage focuses on trying to create an ethical system; the second, on particular cases

Correct answer:

Passage 1 describes moral philosophy as a chiefly speculative exercise; passage 2, as both practical and speculative.

Explanation:

For the first author, the purpose of moral philosophy is one of intellectual critique ("we are engaged in examining and criticizing our moral categories themselves, instead of, as in ordinary thinking, using and applying them in particular cases"); the second, while emphasizing the theoretic ("this demand for a rationale of morality, for principles which shall give his life coherence, marks the transition from the practical to the theoretical standpoint, from life itself to its theoretic understanding"), does so within the context of theory for action's sake. For the first author, the purpose of moral philosophy is primarily speculative; for the second, moral philosophy is speculation that guides action.

Example Question #1 : Comparative Reading

Passage adapted from G. C. Field's Moral Theory: an introduction (1921)

Moral Philosophy, as here conceived, is a criticism of our moral categories. We all know more or less what a moral judgment is, and we are all, of course, constantly making them. So-and-so is a good (or a bad) man, such-and-such an action is right (or wrong), are two types of the commonest forms of them. In such judgments, we use the ideas, or, to adopt our phraseology, the categories of good or bad, right or wrong. And in ordinary moral thinking we do not criticize these categories. Our interest then is centred in the question whether these or similar judgments are true or not. Is so-and-so a good man? Is this action right or wrong? We assume that there is something which we can call good or right, and we ask where it is present, what men or actions are good or right. But in Philosophy we shift our centre of interest. We are no longer concerned primarily with the question whether, for instance, any particular action is right or wrong; the question that we raise as moral philosophers is, “What does 'good' or 'right' mean?” That is, we are engaged in examining and criticizing our moral categories themselves, instead of, as in ordinary thinking, using and applying them in particular cases.

Passage adapted from James Seth, A Study of Ethical Principles (1898)

Ethics is the science of morality or conduct. It is accordingly often called practical, as opposed to theoretical, philosophy or metaphysics. The description is correct, if it is meant that ethics is the philosophy or theory of practice. It suggests, however, the question of the relations of moral theory and practice. Life or practice always precedes its theory or explanation; we are men before we are moralists. The moral life, though it implies an intellectual element from the first, is, in its beginnings, and for long, a matter of instinct, of tradition, of authority. The conceptions of good and evil, virtue and vice, duty and desert, which guide the life, not merely of the child but of the mass of mankind, are largely accepted, like intellectual notions, in blind and unquestioning faith. But moral, like intellectual, manhood implies emancipation from such a merely instinctive life; moral maturity brings with it reflection upon the meaning of life. The good man, like the wise man, puts away childish things; as a rational being, he must seek to reduce his life, like his world, to system. The contradictions and rivalries of ethical codes, the varying canons of moral criticism, the apparent chaos of moral practice, force upon him the need of a moral theory. This demand for a rationale of morality, for principles which shall give his life coherence, marks the transition from the practical to the theoretical standpoint, from life itself to its theoretic understanding.

Both passages contain _____________.

Possible Answers:

an analysis of an inadequite preliminary conception of a crucial notion

extrapolation from a few key particular cases to a general rule

an argument by analogy.

an argument based in common sense or self-evident propositions

examples of reductio ad absurdum

Correct answer:

an analysis of an inadequite preliminary conception of a crucial notion

Explanation:

Both passages begin with the claim that the conventional sort of morality is inadequate in some way for some purpose. They then explain what the shortcomings of this intuitive, pre-philosophical conventional morality are, before arguing that a more rigorous philosophical sort of understanding is needed.

Example Question #2 : Comparative Reading

"Europe and the Black Death"

In a series of lectures published after his death, historian David Herlihy theorizes that the Black Death led to the transformation of Western Europe and shaped crucial aspects of modern thinking and behavior. Herlihy’s lectures, written in 1985, draw comparisons to social phenomena associated with more recent epidemics, such as the influenza outbreak of 1919 and the mysterious arrival of AIDS in his own time. However, Herlihy writes that what made the Black Death so historically significant, other than the shocking death toll it levied, was the transformative impact that the plague had on labor markets, agrarian practices, economic innovation, and medical theory.

Herlihy’s lectures take aim at Thomas Malthus’s Iron Law of Population as laid out in his 1798 book titled An Essay on the Principle of Population. The Iron Law states that that population growth is necessarily limited by the available means of subsistence and actual population will be ultimately kept equal to the means of subsistence through catastrophic events. The Black Death, which deprived erstwhile-overpopulated 14th Century Europe of more than 25 million of its residents, became a seminal historical example of a Malthusian population check.

However, Herlihy cautions against characterizing the Black Death as a response to overpopulation in medieval Europe. If that were the case, he asserts, the epidemic would have arrived at the beginning of the century when population growth slowed amidst escalating food prices. Herlihy writes, "The medieval experience shows us not a Malthusian crisis but a stalemate, in the sense that the community was maintaining at stable levels very large numbers over a lengthy period." He posits that the term population deadlock, rather than population crisis, should be used to describe Europe before the epidemics.

According to Herlihy, the arrival of the Black Death to Europe in 1347 broke this deadlock. As a result of crashing populations, trade guilds and landowners went from a labor glut to a labor shortage virtually overnight. The shortage led to innovations in both agriculture and the production of goods. For example, Herlihy theorizes that the invention of the printing press in 1440 occurred in part because the Black Death and successive plagues culled the ranks of scribes needed to transcribe manuscripts by hand. He also argues that the sudden public health crisis bridged the divide between medical theorists and those actually treating patients, resulting in more anatomical research and medical innovation.

Still more profound, Herlihy writes, was the effect the population crash had on longstanding medieval social structures. In addition to forcing agricultural innovation, the plague’s strengthening of the labor market reduced the peasant’s dependence on wealthy landowners. In fact, evidence shows that the labor ranks thinned even more during the outbreak from pessimistic workers who opted to spend their precious remaining time on earth in leisure. Those who continued to work enjoyed greater social mobility, which led to the passage of sumptuary laws by members of the elite desperate to maintain their caste superiority in a waning feudal economic system.

Which of the following is most analogous to the passage’s discussion of the economic transformation in Europe following the Black Death?

Possible Answers:

an abundance of cheap labor limiting the drive to invest in automation

a sudden oil crisis leading to the invention of hyper-efficient engines

rising steel prices slowing new construction

the discovery of an infectious disease creating a demand for new treatments

a real estate price crash making homes more affordable for the working class

Correct answer:

a sudden oil crisis leading to the invention of hyper-efficient engines

Explanation:

Best answer: This choice describes a severe commodity shortage that forces a dependent industry to use that resource more efficiently, just like the European economies had to innovate to make more efficient use of a smaller workforce.

Wrong answers: The appearance of a disease is the only similarity in this choice; A real estate crash is analogous in that a sudden price change helps the poor, but it doesn’t show how the shift produces an economic transformation; An abundance of labor accurately relates to Europe before the Black Death, according to Herlihy; The steel price hike describes a simple cause and effect scenario without the transformative results mentioned in the passage.

Example Question #5 : Comparative Reading

Passage adapted from G. C. Field's Moral Theory: an introduction (1921)

Moral Philosophy, as here conceived, is a criticism of our moral categories. We all know more or less what a moral judgment is, and we are all, of course, constantly making them. So-and-so is a good (or a bad) man, such-and-such an action is right (or wrong), are two types of the commonest forms of them. In such judgments, we use the ideas, or, to adopt our phraseology, the categories of good or bad, right or wrong. And in ordinary moral thinking we do not criticize these categories. Our interest then is centred in the question whether these or similar judgments are true or not. Is so-and-so a good man? Is this action right or wrong? We assume that there is something which we can call good or right, and we ask where it is present, what men or actions are good or right. But in Philosophy we shift our centre of interest. We are no longer concerned primarily with the question whether, for instance, any particular action is right or wrong; the question that we raise as moral philosophers is, “What does 'good' or 'right' mean?” That is, we are engaged in examining and criticizing our moral categories themselves, instead of, as in ordinary thinking, using and applying them in particular cases.

Passage adapted from James Seth, A Study of Ethical Principles (1898)

Ethics is the science of morality or conduct. It is accordingly often called practical, as opposed to theoretical, philosophy or metaphysics. The description is correct, if it is meant that ethics is the philosophy or theory of practice. It suggests, however, the question of the relations of moral theory and practice. Life or practice always precedes its theory or explanation; we are men before we are moralists. The moral life, though it implies an intellectual element from the first, is, in its beginnings, and for long, a matter of instinct, of tradition, of authority. The conceptions of good and evil, virtue and vice, duty and desert, which guide the life, not merely of the child but of the mass of mankind, are largely accepted, like intellectual notions, in blind and unquestioning faith. But moral, like intellectual, manhood implies emancipation from such a merely instinctive life; moral maturity brings with it reflection upon the meaning of life. The good man, like the wise man, puts away childish things; as a rational being, he must seek to reduce his life, like his world, to system. The contradictions and rivalries of ethical codes, the varying canons of moral criticism, the apparent chaos of moral practice, force upon him the need of a moral theory. This demand for a rationale of morality, for principles which shall give his life coherence, marks the transition from the practical to the theoretical standpoint, from life itself to its theoretic understanding.

The underlined word "criticism" in the first passage most closely means ____________.

Possible Answers:

commentary

analysis

censure

rebuke

judgment

Correct answer:

analysis

Explanation:

"Criticism," as in other sentences within the passage, here most closely means "analysis." It does not seem as if the author believes that it is necessary to condemn intuitive morality; rather, he is interested in knowing what exactly these moral judgments are, in analyzing categories instead of using them. However, there is a more rigorous sense of intellectual scrutiny and investigation than mere commentary; thus, "analysis" seems to be the closest synonym.

Example Question #1 : Comparative Reading

"The Passing of the Armies" by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1915) Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a Brevet Major-General of U.S. Volunteers who was present at General Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. In the following paragraphs he describes a portion of one of the final battles of the Civil War.

The attack was impetuous; the musketry hot. Major Glenn with his six companies in skirmishing order dashed through the stream and struck the enemy's breastworks front and flank. In a moment everything started loose. The entire brigade forded the stream and rolled forward, closing upon Glenn right and left, and the whole command swept onward like a wave, carrying all before it a mile or more up the road, to the buildings of the Lewis Farm. The enemy now re-enforced made a decided stand, and the fight became sharp. But our enveloping line pressed them so severely that they fell back after each struggle to the edge of a thick wood, where a large body had gathered behind a substantial breastwork of logs and earth.

A withering volley breaks our line into groups. Courage and resolution are great, but some other sentiment mightier for the moment controls our men; a backward movement begins, but the men retire slowly, bearing their wounded with them, and even some of their dead. The enemy, seeing this recoil, pour out of their shelter and make a dash upon our broken groups, but only to be dashed back in turn hand to hand in eddying whirls. And seized by our desperate fellows, so many are dragged along as prisoners in the receding tide that it is not easy to tell which side is the winning one. Much of the enemy's aim is unsteady, for the flame and murk of their thickening fire in the heavy moist air are blown back into their eyes by the freshening south wind. But reinforcements are coming in, deepening and broadening their line beyond both our flanks. Now roar and tumult of motion for a fierce pulse of time, then again a quivering halt. At length one vigorous dash drives the assailants into the woods again with heavy loss. We had cleared the field, and thought it best to be content with that for the present. We reform our lines each side the buildings of the Lewis Farm, and take account of the situation.

Which of the following statements most accurately reflects the main idea of the passage?

Possible Answers:

Many troops on both sides fled the field due to cowardice

A fierce battle between Union and Confederate troops raged back and forth, eventually leaving Union troops in command of the field

Confederate troops showed a great deal more bravery in the battle than the Union troops

The battle went exactly according to the Union general's plans

Correct answer:

A fierce battle between Union and Confederate troops raged back and forth, eventually leaving Union troops in command of the field

Explanation:

Although Chamberlain relates how some troops retreated, he specifically says that this was NOT due to cowardice. In fact, troops retreated slowly and attempted to take their wounded comrades with them. He also does not say that Confederate troops showed greater bravery. It can be implied that he believes both sides showed equal courage. In the first sentence of the first paragraph, Chamberlain states, "The attack was impetuous..." meaning that it was not planned. Therefore, the only answer left is the correct one: "A fierce battle between Union and Confederate troops raged back and forth, eventually leaving Union troops in command of the field."

Example Question #1 : Content Of Comparative Reading Passages

"Europe and the Black Death"

In a series of lectures published after his death, historian David Herlihy theorizes that the Black Death led to the transformation of Western Europe and shaped crucial aspects of modern thinking and behavior. Herlihy’s lectures, written in 1985, draw comparisons to social phenomena associated with more recent epidemics, such as the influenza outbreak of 1919 and the mysterious arrival of AIDS in his own time. However, Herlihy writes that what made the Black Death so historically significant, other than the shocking death toll it levied, was the transformative impact that the plague had on labor markets, agrarian practices, economic innovation, and medical theory.

Herlihy’s lectures take aim at Thomas Malthus’s Iron Law of Population as laid out in his 1798 book titled An Essay on the Principle of Population. The Iron Law states that that population growth is necessarily limited by the available means of subsistence and actual population will be ultimately kept equal to the means of subsistence through catastrophic events. The Black Death, which deprived erstwhile-overpopulated 14th Century Europe of more than 25 million of its residents, became a seminal historical example of a Malthusian population check.

However, Herlihy cautions against characterizing the Black Death as a response to overpopulation in medieval Europe. If that were the case, he asserts, the epidemic would have arrived at the beginning of the century when population growth slowed amidst escalating food prices. Herlihy writes, "The medieval experience shows us not a Malthusian crisis but a stalemate, in the sense that the community was maintaining at stable levels very large numbers over a lengthy period." He posits that the term population deadlock, rather than population crisis, should be used to describe Europe before the epidemics.

According to Herlihy, the arrival of the Black Death to Europe in 1347 broke this deadlock. As a result of crashing populations, trade guilds and landowners went from a labor glut to a labor shortage virtually overnight. The shortage led to innovations in both agriculture and the production of goods. For example, Herlihy theorizes that the invention of the printing press in 1440 occurred in part because the Black Death and successive plagues culled the ranks of scribes needed to transcribe manuscripts by hand. He also argues that the sudden public health crisis bridged the divide between medical theorists and those actually treating patients, resulting in more anatomical research and medical innovation.

Still more profound, Herlihy writes, was the effect the population crash had on longstanding medieval social structures. In addition to forcing agricultural innovation, the plague’s strengthening of the labor market reduced the peasant’s dependence on wealthy landowners. In fact, evidence shows that the labor ranks thinned even more during the outbreak from pessimistic workers who opted to spend their precious remaining time on earth in leisure. Those who continued to work enjoyed greater social mobility, which led to the passage of sumptuary laws by members of the elite desperate to maintain their caste superiority in a waning feudal economic system.

The primary purpose of the passage is to ______________.

Possible Answers:

analyze the social and economic impact of epidemics during the medieval period

present evidence that the disease that fueled the Black Death crisis was not the Bubonic Plague, as previously believed

discuss the factors that contributed to catastrophic population losses in Western Europe with the arrival of the Black Death

criticize the hypothesis of Thomas Malthus that a population check invariably follows overpopulation

summarize one historian’s theories about how the Black Death broke the population deadlock of the 14th Century and spurred social and economic transformation

Correct answer:

summarize one historian’s theories about how the Black Death broke the population deadlock of the 14th Century and spurred social and economic transformation

Explanation:

Correct Answer: The main point of the passage is to summarize the hypothesis of historian David Herlihy regarding the transformative effects of the Black Death.

Wrong answers: The passage does not discuss the environmental causes of the Black Death, but rather its impact on society; The passage only addresses the Black Death and not all epidemics of the medieval period; The identity of the underlying disease is not discussed in the passage; Herlihy refused to apply the Malthusian Iron Law of Population to the events of the Black Death, but did not criticize the theory.

Learning Tools by Varsity Tutors