I'm an LSAT instructor and I've been stuck on the following LSAT question ever since I first saw it.

This question is in the only freely available LSAT (Section 3, #18). If this question is wrong that means it's been misdirecting people for over 10 years, URMs and the poor especially. Please take the time to consider this question.

In all cultures, it is almost universally accepted that one has a moral duty to prevent members of one's family from being harmed. Thus, few would deny that if a person is known by the person's parents to be falsely accused of a crime, it would be morally right for the parents to hide the accused from the police. Hence, it is also likely accepted that it is sometimes morally right to obstruct the police in their work.

The reasoning in the editorialist's argument is most vulnerable to criticism on the grounds that this argument

Correct Answer Choice

Fails to consider the possibility that other moral principles would be widely recognized as overriding any obligation to protect a family member from harm.

The question requires takers to pick the answer choice that points out the assumption in the argument's reasoning. Here the gap is between the concepts of moral duty and morally right. So, the argument assumes that people widely believe that performing one's moral duty is always morally right.

The problem with the answer choice is that it tells us the premise (the first sentence) is false. In the logical reasoning section of the LSAT, takers must accept all premises are always true.

The premise states that people widely believe they have a duty to X. So, we have to assume they believe this duty is always imposed on those with family.

This answer choice, however, states that duty to X is sometimes considered overridden by other moral principles.

IMO whenever a duty is overridden, that means that duty is no longer imposed while it's overridden regardless of which definition of override is used.

In other words, the duty may still exist in other contexts, but in a context where it's overridden, there's no penalty for breaching the duty. By definition, if there is no penalty for breach, that means there is no duty.

So, this answer choice is essentially saying that sometimes people widely believe there is no duty to X which is a contradiction of the premise (people widely believe there is always a duty to do X).

As I said earlier, takers are not allowed to contradict premises. So, while this answer choice does show that performing one's moral duty is sometimes not morally right, it only does so by contradicting the premise.

I am looking for a way to interpret this answer choice that doesn't contradict the premise but exposes the flaw.


There is no contradiction in the answer; the issue arises from your interpretation of duty. It's just not the case that all duties are necessarily absolute.

Imagine you're walking down the street with a piece of trash in your hand when you see someone falling out of a tree in front of you. You heroically catch the falling person, but you only by dropping the trash along the way. When you turn around the trash has blown away in the wind.

Now: did your duty to not litter go away just because it conflicted with a more important duty, saving people from injury? No, of course not. You shouldn't litter, but you didn't really have a choice in this situation.

You say in a context where it's overridden, there's no penalty for breaching the duty. By definition, if there is no penalty for breach, that means there is no duty. But both of these statements are false. First, there is a penalty for littering---the planet is a little bit more polluted because of your actions. And second, your definition of duty is one I have never heard of. A duty is a responsibility or an obligation. You'll have a tough time proving that in every single case of a duty there is a penalty for breach.

Even if you are right, though, the point is, your view is far from obviously true. And a very good response to someone making the editorialist's argument would be "on the standard account, many duties bind relatively, and the duty to protect one's family might be one of them."

  • 1
    Your interpretation of Kant is wrong: obligatio non colliduntur (Metaphysics of Morals: Doctrine of Right, 6:224, iirc). It is in the concept of duty for Kant that duties express something necessary. He even argues that exactly because of that, duties cannot possibly collide, as two necessary actions colliding would be contradictio in adjecto. Hence, in these cases we erred about one of them actually being our duty. – Philip Klöcking Aug 31 '17 at 10:14
  • @PhilipKlöcking what is his account of what's going on when we choose one imperfect duty over another? For instance helping people vs improving ourselves. – Canyon Aug 31 '17 at 13:26
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    Dutiful actions are only situationally absolute, as in "Given situation S with properties a, b, c, d, and e, you should absolutely and necessarily do action A". Most people tend to forget that fact about maxims (and, by virtue of this, "categorical imperatives" - hint: There can only be a single one by definition): They include situational qualifiers. Imperfect duties are imperfect as there are various means to fulfil them, but regarding a particular action and situation, there can at every time only be one dutiful action. It is general rules of virtue vs. absolute validity of morals. – Philip Klöcking Aug 31 '17 at 15:13
  • I had no idea about "at every time... only one dutiful action". Thank you! – Canyon Aug 31 '17 at 16:47

You're right, without a specific definition of what the question means by the word 'duty' the chosen answer is a contradiction. The trouble is, the exam seems to be trying to introduce a rational analysis of a statement which contains terms that are not rationally defined, or empirically supported.

To begin with, it is absolutely not true that "In all cultures, it is almost universally accepted that one has a moral duty to prevent members of one's family from being harmed". It is true that wishing to avoid harm to one's family members is an almost universal desire, but that does not, in any way, demonstrate that it is universally considered a 'duty' in the sense that the term is later used. Some (maybe even most) people might consider protecting one's family from harm to be a way to express a caring nature (virtue), some might consider it to be the best way to ensure the continuation of the species (a humanist utilitarian), others might consider it to simply be the most expedient way to bring about their own happiness (hedonists). Duty has a very specific meaning in ethics and it far from widely agreed upon that such a thing even exists, let alone is universally accepted.

One of the main critiques of 'duty' as a concept is that it is poorly defined and leads to exactly the sort of 'degrees of wrongness' problem you describe. If we define duties widely, 'do not lie', 'do not harm others', then these duties will inevitably conflict and one must choose, but how does one choose without grading them, essentially deciding which one it would be 'most wrong' to transgress. Most utilitarian critics of deontology, following J S Mill, argue that this renders the system ultimately consequentialist anyway.

In order to avoid the problem one must have an absolute duty that is so carefully prescribed as to never lead to conflict (which is largely Kant's view - "“a conflict of duties is inconceivable” - Kant in The Metaphysical Elements of Justice), which in the case of your question would require the premise "... it is almost universally accepted that one has a moral duty to prevent members of one's family from being harmed unless ... (followed by a whole string of situations in which the above does not apply)".

In short, the question is taking a term which is widely misunderstood and believed by many ethicists to mean nothing concrete at all and then attempting to suggest that some universally true logical consequence can be deduced from it. Essentially it seems to be saying unless you simply believe in deontology on faith you have no place in law school, which is quite worrying.


The part or consequence of a duty is not an entire duty.

I can have an obligation to feed my dogs. I can also have an obligation to feed my child. If I become poor enough, those will surely compete. To favor the latter over the former is still morally right.

That does not mean that the first obligation is gone at any point. They do continue to compete. But real duties do not compete.

These two things are not independent duties, they are instances of a single, clearer duty -- that one should take responsibility for the dependencies one chooses to create.

The idea that one of these demands may override the other does not mean that the overridden obligation itself goes away, but that the best way of attending any single duty depends upon the context.

Family obligations remain real. Obligations to a wider society are another social obligation. One can sequence or order those parts of the same network of social obligations differently without abrogating any of them. Beneath both of them is a duty to contribute to the maintenance of your culture as a whole.

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