Which one of the following most accurately expresses the main conclusion of the argument?

This is a Main Conclusion question.

This is a tough problem that requires you to be good at (1) conditional logic – including how to handle the less common indicator “except,” (2) distinguishing context from argument, (3) tracking when one term is used interchangeably with another, and (4) managing abstract concepts – either by bringing the concepts down to earth using your own examples, or by mentally stuffing those concepts into a box to stop them from distracting you. Let’s throw in this skill, too: (5) strategic skimming.

Ready to dig in? Note that I’ll start with an explanation from the perspective of someone who is strong at the skills this problem is testing, but not quite an LSAT demigod. Extra comments that flesh things out a bit more will follow at the end.

We start with the following: The end of an action is the intended outcome of the action and not a mere by-product of the action…

What?

Let’s make sure to stop and translate that into something that makes sense. Resist the urge to immediately skim for the conclusion and hope that that will be enough to solve the question. The LSAT often doesn’t make the conclusion too difficult to find – but the challenge is in actually understanding what it’s saying and being ready for the correct answer to phrase that idea in different ways, including ways that require you to understand other parts of the stimulus. Don’t get me wrong – as I alluded to above, strategic skimming is an important skill, and one we will use. But try your best to understand the first line, in both LR and RC, even if it means slowing down, re-reading, and breaking down a statement into its separate parts.

The end of an action is the intended outcome of an action – this refers to the purpose of an action. You go to the gym to get healthier. You set an alarm in the morning to get up early for a flight. What you hope to achieve by doing something is the “end” of the action.

The stimulus contrasts the purpose of the action with “a mere by-product of the action.” You can tell there’s a contrast because the statement defines an “end” by defining what it is and what it’s not. “By-product” is an important word to know on the LSAT, since it comes up in other questions. But even if you don’t know exactly what it means, you can tell that it is not an intended outcome.

You go to the gym to get healthier, but a by-product of going to the gym is feeling insecure. You set an alarm in the morning to get up early for a flight, but a by-product of setting an alarm is feeling tired when you wake up.

(The distinction this problem makes between intended outcomes and unintended outcomes recurs all over the place in LSAT LR. You would do well to remember that whatever someone intends by doing an action can be completely different from the actual consequences of the action.)

So we know what the end of an action is – the outcome you want from it.

The first sentence finishes: …and the end’s value is thus the only reason for the action.

What?

How does that follow from the first half of the statement? Honestly even I’m lost at this point – lost in terms of the content. But the structure is clear from the word “thus.” That means this part of the sentence – that an end’s value is the only reason for the action – is a conclusion supported by the first half of the sentence. How does the definition of an end tell us what its value is? And is “the only reason for the action” supposed to be the same as the “intended outcome”? Let’s set these questions aside, because we may not need to resolve them in order to get the question correct.

So far, we have a premise, followed by a conclusion all in the first sentence. Let’s keep reading.

So while it is true that – let’s stop right here.

The next sentence begins with the word “So” – this means that we’re about to get a conclusion. And it would be the main conclusion of the argument, because it’s following from – or in other words, being supported by – the previous sentence, which contained a premise-conclusion structure.

However, immediately after “So” we get the phrase “while it is true…”. That phrase is a classic indicator of a concession – something the author of the argument acknowledges might be true, but does not play any supporting role in the argument. You can often strategically skim through a concession, without needing to fully digest it, if your goal is simply to identify and understand the main conclusion.

That means we’re about to get something that’s not the conclusion. Let’s skim this part:

… while it is true that not every end’s value will justify any means, and even, perhaps, that there is no end whose value will justify every means, …

The structure “while it is true that [X] and that [Y]” tells us that both X and Y are part of the concession, because “it” is a reference to both X and Y. What are the things that are true? X and Y. You can rephrase this as “while X is true and Y is true…”.

Finally, we get to the main conclusion:

… it is clear that nothing will justify a means except an end’s value.

I was hoping this would make more sense by now. All that work understanding the first part of the first sentence hasn’t really paid off. At least we know that that statement is the main conclusion, because the first sentence has a premise-conclusion structure, and, once we cut out the concession, the word “So” and the phrase “it is clear that” tells us that the last part follows from the first sentence.

So we’re looking for an answer that best matches the meaning of “...nothing will justify a means except an end’s value.”

What does that mean? I’m not sure what a “means” is…nor what the “end’s value” is exactly. But I do know what “except” means. It introduces an exception, which you can handle like the word “unless.”. So let’s take one half of the statement and make it the sufficient condition, but negated. I’ll pick “end’s value.”

If something is NOT an end’s value → then it cannot justify a means.

The contrapositive, which we can get by switching both sides of the arrow and negating, looks like this:

If something will justify a means → the thing must be an end’s value.

Both this version of the conditional and the original version are expressing the idea that being an end’s value is necessary in order to justify a means.

That’s the main conclusion. We can understand the structure of it pretty well, and the content less well, but I’m still confident we can get to the correct answer. One thing before we move to the answers: Do not, for any reason, confuse sufficiency with necessity. An end’s value is necessary for justifying a means. But that doesn’t mean that an end’s value is enough by itself to justify a means.

Answer Choice (A) The value of some ends may justify any means.

This isn’t saying that an end’s value is necessary for something else. It’s saying that an end’s value might do something else.

Answer Choice (B) One can always justify a given action by appeal to the value of its intended outcome.

This answer tells us that you can always justify an action by appealing to value. But that’s not what the conclusion said. It said that appealing to value is needed for justification…that doesn’t mean that in all circumstances, it can always justify another thing.

If that explanation doesn’t click, we can break it down a bit more. What is the sufficient condition of this answer choice? What’s the part that, if you do it, leads to an outcome? Here, it’s “appealing to value.” If you do that, you can always justify.

Another way to get to that understanding is through the word “always.” You can think of “always” as indicating necessity. If something always happens, it must happen.

“The trains to Philadelphia are always late.” That means if something is a train to Philly, then it must be late.

“It’s always raining during the winter in Seattle.” What’s the thing that’s always happening? Raining. So that is what’s necessary: If it’s winter in Seattle, then it must be raining.

This answer choice tells us that “justify” is necessary (the right side of the arrow), when the main conclusion had “justify” as sufficient (the left side of the arrow). This alone tells us it’s wrong.

Correct Answer Choice (C) One can justify an action only by appeal to the value of its intended outcome.

This is the conditional structure we were looking for. “Only by” introduces what’s necessary. So this is saying that appealing to value is necessary for justifying an action. In other words:

Justify action → Appeal to value of the action’s intended outcome

(“Appeal” in this context means to use or rely on – it’s a word we definitely need to understand for the LSAT.)

Now we shouldn’t be immediately comfortable picking this answer, since we haven’t confirmed that “end’s value” and “value of the action’s intended outcome” are the same concept, or that justifying an “action” is the same as justifying a “means.” In a timed situation, we’d want to get rid of the other answers and select this by process of elimination.

See the extra commentary after answer choice (E) for a full account of why this answer choice is correct.

Answer Choice (D) Only the value of the by-products of an action can justify that action.

The value of the by-products? Because we took time to understand the meaning of “by-products” earlier, it’s easier to see that the stimulus never talked about the value of by-products. So this is certainly not the main conclusion.

Answer Choice (E) Nothing can justify the intended outcome of an action except the value of that action’s actual outcomes.

This answer refers to the “actual outcomes” of an action. That phrase was never used – could it refer to “by-products” (the unintended outcomes of an action)? Maybe. But we can still eliminate this answer, since the value of either actual outcomes or by-products isn’t what the conclusion refers to. We are looking for something about the value of intended outcomes.

(E) got close though. With some edits, we can make it right: Nothing can justify an action except the value of that action’s intended outcomes.

The original version of (E) claimed that good intentions don’t matter unless the actual outcomes are good. Let that sink in. It’s a commonly held belief. Another way to put it is to let the results be the judge. That’s very different from the modified version of (E) which claims that it’s only the good intentions that matter. Nothing else can justify an action. Only the intentions matter.

So you want to know why the conclusion’s reference to “end’s value” and “justify a means” matches (C)'s use of “value of its intended outcome” and “justify an action”? Keep reading.

Look back to the first part of the first sentence.

The end of an action is the intended outcome of the action…

We know that the “end” of an action is the intended outcome. So when the conclusion refers to an “end’s value” – we can replace the word “end” with its definition: “intended outcome’s value.” That’s why “value of its intended outcome” matches in (C). Remember what we just did here – the LSAT will commonly spike a problem’s difficulty by requiring us to replace a word with how the stimulus defined that word.

Next, to figure out why “action” is the same as “means,” perhaps we can think about the definition of “action” and “means” and see that they are similar? The means is a way of doing something – so it can encompass the actions you take in order to do something. I’m comfortable with this understanding in a timed situation, particularly if we eliminated the other answers.

A slightly more solid reason that “action” and “means” are interchangeable is tied to the stimulus. Let’s go back to the second half of the first sentence:

… and the end’s value is thus the only reason for the action.

The word “reason” was ambiguous to me when we first discussed it earlier in this explanation – it seemed initially as if it could mean “purpose” – the reason you go to the dentist is your purpose for going to the dentist (cleaner teeth), for example.

But “reason” can also mean justification. Using that meaning, this statement is saying “the intended outcome’s value is the only justification for the action.” For example, if we use the examples at the beginning of the explanation: the value of getting healthier is the only justification for going to the gym. And the value of waking up early to get on a flight is the only justification for setting an alarm.

Immediately after that line, the stimulus launches into the concession – “while it is true that not every end’s value will justify any means…”. Why would the author talk about this?

I think this is why. The previous sentence just said that an end’s value is the only justification (reason) for the action. This means that if an action can be justified, that justification must be the end’s value. The author now wants to clarify the limits of what she just said.

“I’m not saying that every intended outcome will justify any action that produces that outcome – you can’t drop a nuclear bomb on your neighbor to stop him from playing loud music. And I’m also not saying that there’s some holy, amazing, perfect, humanitarian outcome that will justify every action that produces that outcome – no matter how great world peace would be, that would not justify sacrificing a child to a god who demands blood in exchange for granting world peace.”

If we understand that this is what the author is doing, it’s much easier to see that her transition to using the word “means” doesn’t change what she’s talking about. She’s still talking about the “actions” in the first sentence. So the conclusion’s use of “justify a means” is equivalent to “justify an action” in (C).