Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

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See examples from each of the four sections of the MCAT® Exam. The passage in each example provides the context for the questions. The correct answer is provided as well as an explanation that refers to the Foundational Concepts and skills tested.

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The Wealth of Nations (1776) popularized “the invisible hand,” the idea that an individual who intends only personal gain is, as it were, led by an invisible hand to promote the public interest. Adam Smith did not assert that this principle was invariably true, but it contributed to a tendency of thought that has since remained dominant, preventing action based on rational analysis: the assumption that decisions reached individually will collectively be the best decisions for society as a whole. If this assumption is correct, it justifies the continuance of the U.S. policy of laissez-faire in many issues affecting business, the environment, and the family. If it is not correct, U.S. citizens need to re-examine their individual freedoms to see which are defensible.

The rebuttal to the invisible hand theory could be called “the tragedy of the commons.” Picture a pasture open to all. It can be expected that each herder will try to keep as many cattle as possible on this commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably well for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both human and beast far below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning–that is, the day on which the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herder seeks to maximize personal gain. More or less consciously, the individual asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” Since the herder would receive all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive component of this utility is nearly +1. The negative component is a function of the overgrazing caused by an additional animal. Since the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herders, the negative utility for any particular decision-maker is some fraction of -1.

Adding the component utilities, the rational herder concludes that the only sensible course is to add another animal to his or her herdand another, and another. . . . This conclusion is reached by every rational herder who shares the commons. All are locked into a system that compels each to increase his or her gain without limit in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all rush, each pursuing the right to use a public resource. The problem is that a commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low population density. As the human population has increased, the commons concept has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.

The social arrangements that would produce responsibility in this scenario create coercion. The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, agreed to by a majority of those affected. Compulsory taxes are acceptable because a system of voluntary contributions would favor the conscienceless. A society institutes and (grumblingly) supports taxes and other coercive devices to escape the horror of the commons.

Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody’s personal freedom. But what does “freedom” mean? Those subject to the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin. Once they acknowledge the logic of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. We must now recognize the necessity of abandoning the commons assumption in our reproduction. Failure to do so will bring ruin on us all.

Material used in this test passage has been adapted from the following source:
G. Hardin, The tragedy of the commons.  ©1968 by American Association for the Advancement of Science.


1. According to the passage, the decisive factor in determining whether someone’s actions should be subject to coercion is whether the actions:

A) are determined solely by self-interest.

B) affect collectively held resources.

C) degrade the natural environment.

D) are commonly considered immoral.


Correct Answer is B) affect collectively held resources.

Rationale: The passage argument is not that all actions determined by self-interest should be regulated—only those actions in which the gain of one represents a loss to all and voluntary restraint is unlikely. Thus, option A is incorrect. Implicitly, coercion is needed to “produce responsibility” in circumstances to which the parable of the commons applies—i.e., resources are held collectively, so that self-interest “compels each to increase his or her gain without limit in a world that is limited.” Thus, option B is correct. The author implicitly favors coercion rather than “the U.S. policy of laissez-faire in many issues affecting business, the environment, and the family.” Therefore, degradation of the natural environment, although among the issues affecting “the public interest,” would not be a relevant criterion for every decision about the need for coercion. Thus, option C is incorrect. The passage questions the “assumption that decisions reached individually will collectively be the best decisions for society as a whole.” This is a question of economic philosophy, not of personal morality. Thus, option D is incorrect.

2. The passage argument suggests that national parks might benefit from:

I. the restriction of recreational use by means of fees.

II. the selling of the facilities to private investors.

III. the opening of additional facilities to the public.

A) I only

B) III only

C) I and II only

D) II and III only


Correct Answer is A) I only

Rationale: Since everyone has “the right to use a public resource,” pressure on the terrain and ecosystems of national parks increases as population increases. Therefore, these lands would benefit by the imposition of fees that reduced their use by the public (option I). Thus, option A is correct. The opening of additional parklands to the public (option III) might delay “the day of reckoning,” but only by exposing even more resources to the tragedy of the commons. According to the passage, the solution to the problem of overuse is not to enlarge the commons but to abandon the commons concept. If resources to which the commons analogy currently applied became concessions for private investors (option II), charges in their use by the public might result. However, since the passage provides no analysis of the decision-making process involved in the wish of private owners “to maximize personal gain,” it does not justify a conclusion about the effect on parklands of privatization.

3. Some communities with expanding populations have for centuries successfully managed commonly held land. An appropriate clarification of the passage would be the stipulation that the author’s argument applies only to:

A) the future.

B) unregulated resources.

C) conditions of social instability.

D) resources that are not managed locally.


Correct Answer is B) unregulated resources.

Rationale: The past perfect tense of “the commons concept has had to be abandoned” indicates that the abandonment, even if continuing, occurred over an indefinite period in the past. Thus, option A is incorrect. Communities that managed commonly held land so that it was preserved despite an increasing population would necessarily have infringed on “somebody’s personal freedom,” probably through some form of coercion. To accommodate these cases, the author might appropriately qualify the statement that “as the human population increased, the commons concept has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another” with the stipulation that it applies only to unregulated resources. Thus, option B is correct. Although the premise of the question suggests social stability, it does not imply that such stability is necessary to the successful management of commonly held land or that only unstable communities are subject to “the inherent logic of the commons.” Thus, option C is incorrect. The passage author opposes assumptions about publicly held resources that are used to defend “the U.S. policy of laissez-faire.” That is, the problem addressed in the passage is a failure to manage these resources effectively, whether on a local or a national level. Thus, option D is incorrect.

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