What is a Principle on the LSAT?
Principles seem to come up a lot in LSAT logical reasoning sections. We divide principle questions into four separate question types:
- Extract the Principle Questions
- Parallel Principle Questions
- Principle Justify Questions
- Principle Application Questions
Your approach to each of the four question types ought to be catered to that question type, but first you should know what the word “principle” means on the LSAT and why the LSAT puts so much emphasis on principles.
What is a Principle?
A principle is a statement about what should be done, often limited to a particular set of circumstances. For example, this is a principle:
People who value their health should not smoke cigarettes.
Notice that this statement makes a claim about something that a group of people either should or should not do. This is a principle. Principles can be either followed or violated by those the principle applies to. If someone who values her health does not smoke cigarettes, then that person follows the principle. However, if someone who values her health smokes a cigarette, then she violates the principle.
Because the principle makes a claim about what ought to be done under specific circumstances,the principle does not apply to every situation. For example, if someone does not value his heath, the principle does not apply to that individual. Thus, we can imagine the following scenario:
Tom smokes cigarettes and does not value his heath.
Is Tom violating the principle above? No! The principle does not apply to Tom.
Principles can often be rephrased as conditional statements, and many people find that thinking of principles as conditional statements helps them understand how to properly apply the principles. For example, the principle we used above could be rephrased as:
If you value your health, then you should not smoke cigarettes.
We have not changed the meaning of the principle at all here; all we have done is reword it so that the conditional nature of the premise is obvious. Now, it’s easy to see when the principle can be properly applied (when a person values her heath) and when the principle would not apply (when a person does not value her heath).
Why are Principles on the LSAT?
Most laws are just complex principles. Thus, if you know how to properly apply a principle, you will likely know how to properly apply a law. This obviously is a useful skill for a future attorney to have. Applying a principle also resembles other skills that lawyers need, such as properly applying the terms of a contract.
But perhaps more importantly, principle questions resemble law school exams. Knowing when to apply a specific rule is at the heart of most law school exam questions. Often professors will even try to trick students by writing scenarios where a rule almost applies (or perhaps only applies under certain circumstances). Knowing exactly how to apply complex rules is a requirement for any good law student.
So if learning how to answer principle questions feels like a waste of time, keep in mind that you are actively preparing yourself for law school and your career as an attorney. There’s a reason that the LSAT is so highly correlated with first year success in law school (and with bar passage rates).