Lifeboat Ethics Argument Essay Rubric

Essay Assignment #3 Options from Contemporary & Classic Arguments in which you will use the Toulmin Argument (Due 10-24-17)

Option One: Support, refute, or complicate the argument that Garrett Hardin’s analogy in “Lifeboat Ethics” makes an effective argument against traditional liberal approaches to helping the poor.

Option Two: Support, refute, or complicate Harlan Coben’s argument in “The Undercover Parent” that parents are morally compelled to breach their children’s computer privacy for the sake of protecting their children.

Option Three: Addressing Alfred Edmond’s “Why Asking for a Job Applicant’s Facebook Password is Fair Game,” support, refute, or complicate the argument that prospective employees are morally obligated to give up their social media information to potential employers.

Option Four. In the context of Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” support, refute, or complicate the argument that humans are morally compelled to eat a vegan diet.

Option Five. In the context of James Q. Wilson’s “Just Take Away Their Guns,” support, refute, or complicate the argument that anti-gun legislation is both ineffective and morally wrong.

Option Six. In the context of Charles Lawrence’s “On Racist Speech,” support, refute, or complicate the assertion that there are conditions that obligate us to censor speech so that there is no such thing as “free speech” as is commonly accepted.

Option Seven. In the context of the essays in Chapter 4, support, defend, or complicate the argument that in the New Economy college is an overrated and overpriced product that should cause many prospective college students to ponder more viable alternatives to building a strong career.

"Lifeboat Ethics"

"A Critique of Lifeboat Ethics"

Refutation of Lifeboat Ethics

"The Life You Can Save" by Peter Singer

Contemporary & Classic Arguments

“Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor” by Garrett Hardin

First 5 Paragraphs

Environmentalists use the metaphor of the earth as a "spaceship" in trying to persuade countries, industries and people to stop wasting and polluting our natural resources. Since we all share life on this planet, they argue, no single person or institution has the right to destroy, waste, or use more than a fair share of its resources.

But does everyone on earth have an equal right to an equal share of its resources? The spaceship metaphor can be dangerous when used by misguided idealists to justify suicidal policies for sharing our resources through uncontrolled immigration and foreign aid. In their enthusiastic but unrealistic generosity, they confuse the ethics of a spaceship with those of a lifeboat.

A true spaceship would have to be under the control of a captain, since no ship could possibly survive if its course were determined by committee. Spaceship Earth certainly has no captain; the United Nations is merely a toothless tiger, with little power to enforce any policy upon its bickering members.

If we divide the world crudely into rich nations and poor nations, two thirds of them are desperately poor, and only one third comparatively rich, with the United States the wealthiest of all. Metaphorically each rich nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in, or at least to share some of the wealth. What should the lifeboat passengers do?

First, we must recognize the limited capacity of any lifeboat. For example, a nation's land has a limited capacity to support a population and as the current energy crisis has shown us, in some ways we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of our land.

One. What question does Hardin pose in the beginning of his essay?

Does everyone on earth have an equal right to an equal share of its resources?

I’m immediately suspicious of the question because when I think about the various debates we have about helping the poor, the question I think of is not does everyone have an equal right to resources, but our we obligated to help people avoid starvation, suffering, and hardship.

That’s a far cry from having everyone on the same playing field, as it were.

But it’s a good use of deception. The specific deception in this case is The Straw Man Fallacy, which twists, distorts or exaggerates the opponents’ arguments to make one’s own argument appear to be more persuasive.

Straw Man #1 in Hardin’s Essay

Rather than question the humanitarian plea to help alleviate suffering, Hardin wants us to debate whether or not everyone is entitled to an equal share of resources. That is a far more extreme desire than reducing suffering, but the more extreme proposition suits Hardin’s argumentative purposes better.

Two. How does Hardin’s language of “misguided idealists” further contribute to his Straw Man Fallacy?

In the second paragraph, Hardin writes: “The spaceship metaphor can be dangerous when used by misguided idealists to justify policies for sharing our resources through uncontrolled immigration and foreign aid. In their enthusiastic but unrealistic generosity, they confuse the ethics of a spaceship with those of a lifeboat.

Let us defer exploring the spaceship-lifeboat analogy for a second. For now, let us examine the way Hardin represents his opponents, those who want to help the disadvantaged. They are the following:


Out of control

Enthusiastic to the point of not being realistic


Is it fair and accurate to portray those with charitable impulses as being necessarily suicidal and misguided?

Even if the representation is accurate for some do-gooders, it is hardly accurate of all. But by conveniently lumping all charitable people as suicidal overly enthusiastic do-gooders, Hardin commits at least three fallacies:

Straw Man Fallacy: Exaggerating and distorting his opponents

Over simplification Fallacy: Pigeon-holing his opponents in one ridiculous caricature

Ad Hominem: Attacking the character of your opponents without specifically focusing on their policies or ideas. Notice Hardin’s suicidal do-gooders are hypothetical caricatures, not real people with specific ideas.

Three. How valid is Hardin’s comparison of a lifeboat to Planet Earth?

He writes:

“Metaphorically each nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in, or at least to share some of the wealth. What should the lifeboat passengers do? First, we must recognize the limited capacity of any lifeboat. For example, a nation’s land has a limited capacity to support a population and as the current energy crisis has shown us, in some ways we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of our land.”

His argument is no longer cohesive or logical. What started as a debate on helping the poor has taken a turn about overpopulation and geopolitical resources, a crisis reasonable people of all political persuasions can agree upon.

Lifeboat is a faulty comparison that doesn't hold up to details. 

Is going to college like going to prison?

Your professors are prison guards, your homework is oppression and misery, your college is more concerned with business and profits than students. 

That the world can’t sustain our wasteful habits and our growing population is a fact beyond dispute, but it isn’t logical to make the following syllogism:

Major Premise: The world can’t sustain our wasteful habits and growing population so that Planet Earth will eventually implode.

Minor Premise: Helping the poor accelerates Planet Earth’s implosion.

Conclusion: Not helping the poor is the best measure we can take to slow down the Earth’s implosion.

In fact, the above syllogism is false and illogical on many levels.

For one, there is no logical connection between overpopulation and charity, unless we are talking about the kind of exaggerated “suicidal” charity Hardin speaks of, which in any case is a Straw Man.

For two, the lifeboat analogy is far too simplistic for the crisis of an imploding Planet Earth, which is rife with geopolitical conflicts, over-population in some demographics and under population in others.  

An absurdly simplistic analogy—Planet Earth is a lifeboat—evidences a person who is conveniently looking for an excuse so that he can make his manifesto, what I might call The Gospel of Selfishness, which in fact gained great popularity as Garrett Hardin enjoyed a cult following after the publication of his essay.

Thirdly, if the Rich 1% ignore the poor, that negligence can, contrary to Hardin’s claim, accelerate chaos and the Earth’s implosion. When there is a 1% and the rest of no water, food, or jobs, civil law becomes meaningless and chaos ensues. Even rich people know this, and the smartest of the rich want there to be a modicum of resources and stability in “hot spot” areas in order to stave off chaos.

To reiterate, the debate on population and the debate on charity has some connection, as Hardin correctly points out, but they are also separate conflicts that present far more complexities than the simplistic argument Hardin makes.

One could say—or rather I wish to say—that Hardin makes a very simplistic argument larded with Straw Man fallacies, faulty comparisons, and willed ignorance in order to assuage his conscience as he embarks on a life of narcissistic indifference to the suffering of others.

That a rich person in a lifeboat will sink if he helps the poor is a canard. For example, if Bill Gates, a billionaire, gives ten million dollars to help educate children in Africa, his “lifeboat,” to stay with Hardin’s lame analogy, doesn’t sink one inch.

Why? Because there is no lifeboat. There is a very complicated planet with complicated needs. The lifeboat analogy is absurd.

If a college professor gives a thousand dollars to Hurricane Relief, that professor does not “sink in his lifeboat.” Why? Because Hardin’s lifeboat analogy is completely disconnected from reality. It speaks to another logical fallacy.

Faulty Comparison Fallacy: Making a comparison between two things that have no relationship or logical connection.

Lifeboat Analogy Continues to Sink

Hardin asks us to imagine being comfortable on our lifeboat while a hoard of drowning people beg us to let them join us in safety.

If we are “nice,” the lifeboat will sink, and we will all die. Therefore, we must be selfish. Otherwise, we will perish.

But again, we must ask ourselves if this analogy makes any sense.

How do I sink when I give to Hurricane Relief?

How do I sink when I give to an animal rescue mission?

How does Bill Gates sink when he helps educate and vaccinate children in Africa?

How does an engineer sink when he donates toys, canned foods, and books to the Salvation Army?

How does the United States sink when it funds schools for girls in Afghanistan?

There is no sinking. This “we’re going to sink” cry is a Chicken Little move, the paranoid howl of a man desperate to cling to his Gospel of Selfishness.

It is an odious and pathetic argument, a lame rationalization to be selfish. And here’s what stuns me: I’m selfish, and even I’m offended.

Here’s how offended I am:

I’m a pizza glutton, so if I’m gorging on several extra large pizzas in a pizza parlor with a fellow pizza glutton I’ll be unlikely offended. But Garrett Hardin is a Pizza Glutton Uber Alles. He takes pizza gluttony to another dimension that is so colossal in its egregiousness that even I, a fellow pizza glutton, am offended.

And for our purposes, Hardin’s argument is a poorly crafted argument.

After reading the essay’s first 5 paragraphs and concluding that the writer is a third-rate hack, a flagrant xenophobe, and a selfish fraud, I have a difficult time reading on.

But as a critical thinker, I have to be fair, resist the impulse for ad hominem attack, and give the writer a chance.

And to be fair, there are some persuasive points in an essay built on a shabby, unpersuasive claim.

In other words, this essay is an excellent teaching tool because it instructs us that one can have valid evidence that doesn’t add up to backing up the essay’s major claim or thesis.

To make one’s claim or thesis persuasive, the evidence has to be logically connected to the claim. In critical thinking jargon, to make this logical connection is to make a warrant.

Some Valid Evidence in the Essay That Doesn’t Support Author’s Claim: We’re on a lifeboat, and reckless, irresponsible aid to the world’s drowning people will make us all sink, will literally make the world implode.

Tragedy of the Commons

When you own something, you take care of it, you show responsibility for it, and you do your best to keep the thing you own as new as when you got it.

The inverse is also true: When something is given to you and you have no accountability for your actions, you behave accordingly: You abuse and neglect your “freebie” and in general show contempt for all your free access.

My wife, who teaches in PV, will tell you stories of kids whose parents bought them BMWs, they never changed the car’s oil, the engine seized, and their “punishment” was to get a new Mercedes, which would also be subject to neglect.

If each neighborhood shared a car, as some people propose, the car would be treated in a brutal fashion. People would treat it with contempt.

Here is what Hardin writes about The Tragedy of the Commons:

The fundamental error of spaceship ethics and the sharing it requires is that it leads to what I call "the tragedy of the commons." Under a system of private property, the men who own property recognize their responsibility to care for it, or if they don't they will eventually suffer. A farmer, for instance, will allow no more cattle in a pasture than its carrying capacity justifies. If he overloads it, erosion sets in, weeds take over, and he loses the use of the pasture.

If a pasture becomes a commons open to all, the right of each to use it may not be matched by a corresponding responsibility to protect it. Asking everyone to use it with discretion will hardly do, for the considerate herdsman who refrains from overloading the commons suffers more than a selfish one who says his needs are greater. If everyone would restrain himself, all would be well; but it takes only one less than everyone to ruin a system of voluntary restraint. In a crowded world of less than perfect human beings, mutual ruin is inevitable if there are no controls. This is the tragedy of the commons.

Four. Does helping the disadvantaged result in The Tragedy of the Commons?

While Hardin is correct to point out that indiscriminate giving can result in the recipients of handouts behaving in a contemptuous disregard for both the thing the receive and the generous people who provide it, such charity is only a tiny sliver of all the attempts of charity and socially responsible behavior.

To limit helping the poor to The Tragedy of the Commons is an oversimplification. In fact, philanthropists study the science of giving and hire consultants on best ways to give: how to give responsibly while having a positive impact on the entire planet, which completely contradicts the “suicidal” and “misguided” givers characterized in Hardin’s essay.

Of course, it’s convenient for Hardin’s argument to characterize all givers and philanthropists as ignorant, reckless do-gooders, even though this profile collapses in the face of evidence.

Therefore, Hardin has no warrant to connect his Tragedy of the Commons to his claim that giving is dangerous.

Five. What is Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater Fallacy?

We can find several instances of charities gone wrong in which their best-laid plans backfired and created more problems than they solved.

But does incompetence in any field—charity, education, philanthropy, health, nutrition, social work compel us to abandon the project?

Remember Sturgeon’s Law: Over 90% of everything is ****. We must seek the 10% of excellence in everything, including the art of giving.

Six. The editors of our book point out that Hardin uses a reductio ad absurdum argument in paragraph 41. What is this argument and how does it apply to the paragraph?

In the Logically Fallacious website we see the definition of reductio ad absurdum as follows:

Description: A mode of argumentation or a form of argument in which a proposition is disproven by following its implications logically to an absurd conclusion.  Arguments that use universals such as, “always”, “never”, “everyone”, “nobody”, etc., are prone to be reduced to absurd conclusions.  The fallacy is in the argument that could be reduced to absurdity -- so in essence, reductio ad absurdum is a technique to expose the fallacy.

Reductio ad absurdum is neither intrinsically valid or fallacious. It depends on how it’s used.

Here are some McMahon examples of reduction ad absurdum:

Surely, diet books don’t work. If a diet book worked, we’d all read that diet book, and diet books wouldn’t have to be written anymore.

Clearly, psychotherapy is dangerous. We’ve had psychotherapy now for over 100 years, and human beings are crazier than ever.

Eating popcorn at night will make you thirsty.

Being thirsty will compel you to drink copious amounts of liquids before you go to bed.

As a result, you’ll be up all night going to the bathroom.

As a result, you will get a horrible night’s sleep.

As a result, you will be tired all day at work.

As a result, your work performance will be substandard and you will be fired.

As a result of losing your job, you won’t be able to pay your bills, and you will be homeless.

Therefore, we can conclude that eating popcorn will make you homeless.

A mother, concerned that her thirty-year-old son, who is still in college and spends much of his time in the mother’s basement wearing a robe while eating Hot Pockets at his computer and has never been on a date, has this exchange with her son.

“Honey, have you ever tried going out on a date?”

“I can’t date, Mother. I’m getting my Master’s. Dating will provide too much drama, which will compromise my academic performance.”

“But, honey, you’ve been going to college for over twelve years now.”

“Precisely. All the more reason I shouldn’t be dating. Now leave me alone. I’m doing research.”

Now let us look at the reduction ad absurdum in paragraph 41 of Hardin’s essay:

We Americans of non-Indian ancestry can look upon ourselves as the descendants of thieves who are guilty morally, if not legally, of stealing this land from its Indian owners. Should we then give back the land to the now living American descendants of those Indians? However morally or logically sound this proposal may be, I, for one, am unwilling to live by it and I know no one else who is. Besides, the logical consequence would be absurd. Suppose that, intoxicated with a sense of pure justice, we should decide to turn our land over to the Indians. Since all our other wealth has also been derived from the land, wouldn't we be morally obliged to give that back to the Indians too?

As we read the paragraph above, we must ask ourselves: Must our hunger for moral justice and social responsibility for the sins committed against Indians in the form of genocide and thievery push us to the extreme of giving up all of American land to the Indians or are there more measured ways of finding justice?

By proposing the most extreme and absurd measure for exacting justice, Hardin is conveniently saying, “Screw justice.”

It’s like a wife wants her husband to stop gambling and drinking with his buddies every night, and he says, “Are you trying to lock me up like a caged animal? Yes, we’re married, but I need my freedom.” This translates into him being irresponsible husband who recklessly drinks, gambles, and cohorts with juvenile slobs on a nightly basis.

Essay Option One:

Support, refute or complicate the argument that Garrett Hardin’s analogy in “Lifeboat Ethics” makes an effective argument against traditional liberal approaches to helping the poor.

Sample Thesis #1

Garrett Hardin's "Lifeboat Ethics is a veritable treasure trove of logical fallacies, humbug claims, and morally bankrupt rationalizations, which in sum make it the most egregious essay I've taught in my 30 years of teaching. 

Sample Thesis #2

Garrett Hardin's "Lifeboat Ethics" is a toxic smokescreen of flimsy rationalizations for the Haves to to conceal their morally bankrupt agenda of promoting flagrant xenophobia, encouraging narcissistic indifference to the needs of the disadvantaged, and for dismissing all forms of social service as "suicidal" and "misguided" enterprises worthy of scorn and contempt. 

Sample Thesis #3

McMahon's excoriation of Hardin's "Lifeboat Ethics" is rooted in liberal bias, zealous moral rectitude, and the stereotypical do-gooder's outrage, all of which makes McMahon blind to the many virtues of Hardin's essay, which include a persuasive critique on foolish social engineering, the Tragedy of the Commons, and the do-gooder's failure to see the unintended long-term consequences of his philanthropic campaigns. 

Sample Thesis #4

While McMahon accuses Hardin of relying on ad hominem and other logical fallacies, it is our professor who, in an act of supreme hypocrisy, relies on the same fallacies: ad hominem, Straw Man, and faulty comparisons, which in sum prove that our instructor is a lifelong mountebank and a charlatan.

Sample Thesis #5

While both McMahon and Hardin are guilty of relying on unconvincing rhetorical excesses and logical fallacies to support their claims, both make a lot of good points, and I daresay, in spite of the fact that many find the two characters antithetical to one another, I could find some common ground that would bring McMahon and Hardin together. 

Recognizing Logical Fallacies

Begging the Question

Begging the question assumes that a statement is self-evident when it actually requires proof.

Major Premise: Fulfilling all my major desires is the only way I can be happy.

Minor Premise: I can’t afford when of my greatest desires in life, a Lexus GS350.

Conclusion: Therefore, I can never be happy.

Circular Reasoning

Circular reasoning occurs when we support a statement by restating it in different terms.

Stealing is wrong because it is illegal.

Admitting women into the men’s club is wrong because it’s an invalid policy.

Your essay is woeful because of its egregious construction.

Your boyfriend is hideous because of his heinous characteristics.

I have to sell my car because I’m ready to sell it.

I can’t spend time with my kids because it’s too time-consuming.

I need to spend more money on my presents than my family’s presents because I need bigger and better presents.

I’m a great father because I’m the best father my children have ever had.

Weak Analogy or Faulty Comparison

Analogies are never perfect but they can be powerful. The question is do they have a degree of validity to make them worth the effort.

A toxic relationship is like a cancer that gets worse and worse (fine).

Sugar is high-octane fuel to use before your workout (weak because there is nothing high-octane about a substance that causes you to crash and converts into fat and creates other problems)

Free education is a great flame and the masses are moths flying into the flames of destruction. (horribly false analogy)

Ad Hominem Fallacy (Personal Attack)

“Who are you to be a marriage counselor? You’ve been divorced six times?”

A lot of people give great advice and present sound arguments even if they don’t apply their principles to their lives, so we should focus on the argument, not a personal attack.

“So you believe in universal health care, do you? I suppose you’re a communist and you hate America as well.”

Making someone you disagree with an American-hating communist is invalid and doesn’t address the actual argument.

“What do you mean you don’t believe in marriage? What are you, a crazed nihilist, an unrepentant anarchist, an immoral misanthrope, a craven miscreant?”

Straw Man Fallacy

You twist and misconstrue your opponent’s argument to make it look weaker than it is when you refute it. Instead of attacking the real issue, you aim for a weaker issue based on your deliberate misinterpretation of your opponent’s argument.

“Those who are against universal health care are heartless. They obviously don’t care if innocent children die.”

Hasty Generalization (Jumping to a Conclusion)

“I’ve had three English instructors who are middle-aged bald men. Therefore, all English instructors are middle-aged bald men.”

“I’ve met three Americans with false British accents and they were all annoying. Therefore, all Americans, such as Madonna, who contrive British accents are annoying.” Perhaps some Americans do so ironically and as a result are more funny than annoying.

Either/Or Fallacy

There are only two choices to an issue is an oversimplification and an either/or fallacy.

“Either you be my girlfriend or you don’t like real men.”

“Either you be my boyfriend or you’re not a real American.”

“Either you play football for me or you’re not a real man.”

“Either you’re for us or against us.” (The enemy of our enemy is our friend is everyday foreign policy.)

“Either you agree with me about increasing the minimum wage, or you’re okay with letting children starve to death.”

“Either you get a 4.0 and get admitted into USC, or you’re only half a man.”


Equivocation occurs when you deliberately twist the meaning of something in order to justify your position.

“You told me the used car you just sold me was in ‘good working condition.’”

“I said ‘good,’ not perfect.”

The seller is equivocating.

“I told you to be in bed by ten.”

“I thought you meant to be home by ten.”

“You told me you were going to pay me the money you owe me on Friday.”

“I didn’t know you meant the whole sum.”

“You told me you were going to take me out on my birthday.”

“Technically speaking, the picnic I made for us in the backyard was a form of ‘going out.’”

Red Herring Fallacy

This fallacy is to throw a distraction in your opponent’s face because you know a distraction may help you win the argument.

“Barack Obama wants us to support him but his father was a Muslim. How can we trust the President on the war against terrorism when he has terrorist ties?”

“You said you were going to pay me my thousand dollars today. Where is it?”

“Dear friend, I’ve been diagnosed with a very serious medical condition. Can we talk about our money issue some other time?”

Slippery Slope Fallacy

We go down a rabbit hole of exaggerated consequences to make our point sound convincing.

“If we allow gay marriage, we’ll have to allow people to marry gorillas.”

“If we allow gay marriage, my marriage to my wife will be disrespected and dishonored.”

Appeal to Authority

Using a celebrity to promote an energy drink doesn’t make this drink effective in increasing performance.

Listening to an actor play a doctor on TV doesn’t make the pharmaceutical he’s promoting safe or effective.

Tradition Fallacy

“We’ve never allowed women into our country club. Why should we start now?”

“Women have always served men. That’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it always should be.”

Misuse of Statistics

Using stats to show causality when it’s a condition of correlation or omitting other facts.

“Ninety-nine percent of people who take this remedy see their cold go away in ten days.” (Colds go away on their own).

“Violent crime from home intruders goes down twenty percent in a home equipped with guns.” (more people in those homes die of accidental shootings or suicides)

Post Hoc, Confusing Causality with Correlation

Taking cold medicine makes your cold go away. Really?

The rooster crows and makes the sun go up. Really?

You drink on a Thursday night and on Friday morning you get an A on your calculus exam. Really?

You stop drinking milk and you feel stronger. Really? (or is it a placebo effect?)

Non Sequitur (It Does Not Follow)

The conclusion in an argument is not relevant to the premises.

Megan drives a BMW, so she must be rich.

McMahon understands the difference between a phrase and a dependent clause; therefore, he must be a genius.

Whenever I eat chocolate cake, I feel good. Therefore, chocolate cake must be good for me.

Bandwagon Fallacy

Because everyone believes something, it must be right.

“You can steal a little at work. Everyone else does.”

“In Paris, ninety-nine percent of all husbands have a secret mistress. Therefore adultery is not immoral.”

Writing Counter-Arguments

Writing counter-arguments explained by Harvard Writing Center

Mesa College has a good counter-argument essay structure example and explanation. 


While opponents of my subject make some good points against my position, they are in the larger sense wrong when we consider that they fail to see and interpret correctly ____________, ______________, _______________, and _______________.

While Author X is guilty of several weaknesses as described by her opponents, her agument holds up to close examination in the areas of _________________, ______________, _____________, and ______________. 

Even though author X shows weakness in her agument, such as __________ and ____________, she is nevertheless convincing because . . . 

While author X makes many compelling points, her overall argument collapses under the weight of __________, ___________, ___________, and ______________. 

Thesis statements or claims go under four different categories:


One. Claims about solutions or policies: The claim argues for a certain solution or policy change:


America's War on Drugs should be abolished and replaced with drug rehab. 

Two. Claims of cause and effect: These claims argue that a person, thing, policy or event caused another event or thing to occur. 

Social media has turned our generation into a bunch of narcissistic solipsists with limited attention spans, an inflated sense of self-importance, and a shrinking degree of empathy (thesis identifies causes of the "narcissistic solipsist"). 

Three. Claims of value: These claims argue how important something is on the Importance Scale and determine its proportion to other things. 

Global warming poses a far greater threat to our safety than does terrorism.

Social media is having a more self-destructive effect on teenagers than alcohol.  

Four. Claims of definition. These claims argue that we must re-define a common and inaccurate assumption. 

In America the notion of "self-esteem," so commonly taught in schools, is, in reality, a cult of narcissism. While real self-esteem teaches self-confidence, discipline, and accountability, the fake American brand of self-esteem is about celebrating the low expectations of mediocrity, and this results in narcissism, vanity, and sloth.

"Connecting" and "sharing" on social media does not create meaningful relationships because "connecting" and "sharing" are not the accurate words to describe what's going on. What is really happening is that people are curating and editing a false image while suffering greater and greater disconnection. 

Ways to Improve Your Critical Reading and Assess the Quality of Your Sources

  1. Do a background check of the author to see if he or she has a hidden agenda or any other kind of background information that speaks to the author’s credibility.
  2. Check the place of publication to see what kind of agenda, if any, the publishing house has. Know how esteemed the publishing house is among peers of the subject you’re reading about.
  3. Learn how to find the thesis. In other words, know what the author’s purpose, explicit or implicit, is.
  4. Annotate more than underline. Your memory will be better served, according to research, by annotating than underlining. You can scribble your own code in the margins as long as you can understand your writing when you come back to it later. Annotating is a way of starting a dialogue about the reading and writing process. It is a form of pre-writing. Forms of annotation that I use are “yes,” (great point) “no,” (wrong, illogical, BS) and “?” (confusing). When I find the thesis, I’ll also write that in the margins. Or I’ll write down an essay or book title that the passage reminds me of. Or maybe even an idea for a story or a novel.
  5. When faced with a difficult text, you will have to slow down and use the principles of summarizing and paraphrasing. With a summary, you concisely identify the main points in one or two sentences. With paraphrase, you re-word the text in your own words.
  6. When reading an argument, see if the writer addresses possible objections to his or her argument. Ask yourself, of all the objections, did the writer choose the most compelling ones? The more compelling the objections addressed the more rigorous and credible the author’s writing. 

Lesson on Using Sources (adapted from The Arlington Reader, fourth edition)  

We use sources to establish credibility and to provide evidence for our claim. Because we want to establish credibility, the sources have to be credible as well.  

To be credible, the sources must be  

Current or up to date:  to verify that the material is still relevant and has all the latest and possibly revised research and statistical data.  

Authoritative: to ensure that your sources represent experts in the field of study. Their studies are peer-reviewed and represent the gold standard, meaning they are the sources of record that will be referred to in academic debate and conversation.  

Depth: The source should be detailed to give a comprehensive grasp of the subject.  

Objectivity: The study is relatively free of agenda and bias or the writer is upfront about his or her agenda so that there are no hidden objectives. If you’re consulting a Web site that is larded with ads or a sponsor, then there may be commercial interests that compromise the objectivity.   

Checklist for Evaluating Sources  

You must assess six things to determine if a source is worthy of being used for your research paper.  

The author’s objectivity or fairness (author is not biased)  

The author’s credibility (peer-reviewed read by experts) 


The source’s relevance 


The source’s currency (source is up-to-date)  

The source’s comprehensiveness (source has sufficient depth)   

The author’s authority (author’s credentials and experience render him or her an expert in the field)   

Warning Signs of a Poor Online Source   

Site has advertising   

Some company or other sponsors site   

A political organization or special interest group sponsors the site.   

The site has many links to other biased sites.    

"Exploring Facebook Depression"

Hidden Brain and Social Anxiety

MLA Documentation Review

MLA documentation consists of two parts: parenthetical references in the text of your paper and your Works Cited page at the end of the paper.

A parenthetical citation consists of the author’s last name and a page number.

(Fielding 213)

When you use a signal phrase, which is the preferred way to introduce a reference, you include only the page number:

According to environmental activist Brian Fielding, the number of species affected is much higher (213).

When referring to a work by two authors, include both authors’ names.

(Strange and Hogarth 53)

When citing a work with no listed author, include a short version of the title.

(“Small Things”)

When citing a source that is quoted in another source, indicate this by including the abbreviation

According to Kevin Kelly, this narrow approach is typical of the “hive mind” (qtd. in Doctorow 168).

When you are referring to the entire source rather than a specific page or when the source does not include page numbers, you must cite the author’s name in the text of your paper rather than in a parenthetical reference.

In fact, if you are referring to an author for the first time in your essay, you should rely on an introductory signal phrase and not simply rely on the parenthetical reference.

You must document all information that is not common knowledge, whether you are summarizing, paraphrasing, or quoting.  Common knowledge is factual information that is not limited to the domain of an elite circle of experts but can be found in so many sources that we say the information is ubiquitous or everywhere.

With direct quotations, include the parenthetical reference and a period after the closing quotation marks.

According to Doctorow, this is “authorship without editorship. Or authorship fused with editorship” (166).

When quoting a passage of more than four lines (which I discourage unless you think it’s absolutely necessary), introduce the passage with a complete sentence, followed by a colon. Indent the entire passage one inch (usually 10 spaces) from the left margin, and do no use quotation marks. Place the parenthetical reference after the final punctuation mark.

Show link to MLA essay featuring this example since spacing won’t translate on the blog page.

Preparing a Works Cited page

Always start your Works Cited page on a separate page, the last page of your essay.

Center the heading Works Cited at the top of the page.

List entries alphabetically by the author’s last name—or by the title’s first word if the author’s name is not given. However, when we alphabetize a title, we don’t include the article a orthe.

Double-space your entries in the same way you double-space your entire essay.

Each entry begins at the left-hand margin and is not centered.

Italicize all book and periodical titles just like you do you in your essay.

Use a short version of the publisher’s name (Penguin rather than Penguin Books) and abbreviate University Press (as in Princeton UP or U of Chicago P).

Link to basic MLA Works Cited Rules


Integrating Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism 

Summarizing Sources 

“A summary restates the main idea of a passage in concise terms” (314). 

A typical summary is one or two sentences. 

A summary does not contain your opinions or analysis. 

Paraphrasing Sources 

A paraphrase, which is longer than a summary, contains more details and examples. Sometimes you need to be more specific than a summary to make sure your reader understands you. 

A paraphrase does not include your opinions or analysis. 

Quoting Sources 

Quoting sources means you are quoting exactly what you are referring to in the text with no modifications, which might twist the author’s meaning. 

You should avoid long quotations as much as possible. 

Quote only when necessary. Rely on summary and paraphrase before resorting to direct quotes. 

A good time to use a specific quote is when it’s an opposing point that you want to refute. 

Using Signal Phrases or Identifying Tag to Introduce Summary, Paraphrase, and Quoted Material 

According to Jeff McMahon, the grading rubric in English classes is used in such a way by instructors that soon there will be no such thing as an “easy” or “hard” professor. They’ll all be the same. 

Jeff McMahon notes that the grading rubric in English classes is used in such a way by instructors that soon there will be no such thing as an “easy” or “hard” professor. They’ll all be the same. 

The grading rubric in English classes is used in such a way by instructors, Jeff McMahon observes, that soon there will be no such thing as an “easy” or “hard” professor.  

The grading rubric in English classes is used in such a way by instructors that soon there will be no such thing as an “easy” or “hard” professor, Jeff McMahon points out.  

Common identifying tags (put link here)






Whether you've never written an SAT Essay or didn't get the score you wanted on your last test, you can benefit from knowing more: both about the essay itself, and what really matters when the graders are reading your essay.

To introduce you to what you'll have to do, we've gathered up these 15 tips to master the SAT essay. If you can reliably follow all these points, you'll be able to get at least a 6/6/6 on the SAT essay—guaranteed.


The Challenge

The SAT Essay is a very short assignment. You only get 50 minutes to read a 650-750 word passage, analyze the devices the author uses to structure her/his argument, and write a full-fledged essay—and it can pass in a flash if you don't have a method for attacking it.

Writing an SAT essay requires a very specific approach that's unlike the essays you've been writing for English class in school. The goal of this strategy is to cram in as many as possible of the desired components in the 50 minutes you've got. In this article, we give you 15 key tips for the SAT essay.

The first five tips in this article relate to what the College Board tells us about what's a good essay. The next five are truths that the College Board doesn't want you to know (or doesn’t make explicit). And the last five tips for SAT essay writing show you how to build an SAT essay, step by step.


What the College Board Does Tell You: 5 Tips

The College Board explains the main components of the successful SAT Essay in its scoring criteria. Here they are, condensed:


#1: Give a Clear Thesis

The SAT essay rubric states: "The response includes a precise central claim.”

What this means is that your essay needs to make a clear argument that the reader can easily identify. All you have to do to create your "precise central claim" is to identify the main idea of the passage and list the methods the author uses to support it.

Fortunately, the SAT provides you with the passage’s main idea, so you don’t have to go hunting for it yourself. I've bolded the claim in this (fake) sample prompt so you can see this for yourself:

Write an essay in which you explain how Sam Lindsay builds an argument to persuade her audience that more works of art should feature monsters. In your essay, analyze how Lindsay uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of her argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Lindsay’s claims, but rather explain how Lindsay builds an argument to persuade her audience.

Now, here's an example of a thesis statement for an essay responding to this prompt:

In the article “Monsters Monsters Everywhere,” Sam Lindsay uses personal anecdotes, vivid language, and appeals to emotion to persuade her audience that more works of art should feature monsters.

It's fine to copy the exact words describing the author’s central claim from the prompt into your thesis statement—in fact, this guarantees that the graders will see that your thesis is there and on-topic.


#2: Include Both an Introduction and a Conclusion

The SAT essay rubric states: "The response includes a skillful introduction and conclusion.”

Including an introduction paragraph in your essay is absolutely essential to getting a Writing score above a 4 (out of 8). The introduction paragraph introduces the reader to what you’ll be talking about and allows you to set up the structure for the rest of the essay. Plus, an introduction can be a pretty good indicator of the quality for the rest of the essay—a poorly constructed introduction is often a warning that the essay that follows will be equally discombobulated.

It's best to have both an introduction and a conclusion, but if you’re running short on time and can only have one, definitely pick the introduction. The main reason for this is that a good introduction includes your thesis statement. For the SAT essay, your thesis (or your "precise central claim") should be a statement about what devices the author uses to build her/his argument.

Introductions can be tricky to write, because whatever you write in that paragraph can then make you feel like you’re locked into writing just about that. If you’re struggling with the introduction paragraph, leave yourself 10 blank lines at the beginning of the essay and jump into writing your body paragraphs. Just make sure you remember to go back and write in your introduction before time’s up!


#3: Use Effective Language and Word Choice

There are a couple of parts of the Writing score section on the SAT essay rubric that pertain directly to style.

The SAT essay rubric states this about a perfect-Writing-score essay: "The response is cohesive and demonstrates a highly effective use and command of language."

For most of us, "command of language" is an area that takes a long time to develop, so unless your language skills are really rough or you're prepping at least a year ahead of time (or both), you'll probably get more out of focusing on the other components of the essay.

The SAT essay rubric also states: “The response has a wide variety in sentence structures. The response demonstrates a consistent use of precise word choice. The response maintains a formal style and objective tone.”

This basically boils down to: don't be repetitive and don't make grammar mistakes. In addition, you should avoid using first person statements like "I" or "My" in the essay, along with any other informality. You're writing the equivalent of a school paper, not an opinion piece.


Bad (Too informal):

“I think that Sam’s super persuasive in this article cause she’s just so passionate. It made me feel kinda bad that I don’t really monster it up in my everyday life.”


Good (Formal):

“Lindsay’s passionate defense of how drawing monsters 'allows us to laugh at our personal foibles' causes her audience to put themselves in her shoes and empathize with her position.”


Finally, try to use different words to describe the same idea—don't use "shows" 15 times. Take the chance to show off your vocabulary (if, and only if, the vocabulary is appropriate and makes sense). This component is the biggest reason why revising your SAT Essay is essential—it's fast and easy to change repeated words to other ones after you're finished, but it can slow you down during writing to worry about your word choice. If you're aiming for a top score, using advanced vocabulary appropriately is vital.


#4: Only Use Information From the Passage

All the relevant information is in the passage, so avoid getting drawn into the topic and using your outside knowledge—you want to be sure to show that you’ve read the passage.

In real life, there are many ways to support a thesis, depending on the topic. But on the SAT, there's one kind of correct support: specific details drawn from the passage you’re asked to analyze. We'll show you more below.


#5: Focus Your Essay on Relevant Details

You don’t have to mention every single detail that makes the argument effective. In fact, your essay will be more coherent and more likely to score higher in Analysis if you focus your discussion on just a few points. It's more important to show that you're able to pick out the most important parts of the argument and explain their function that it is to be able to identify every single persuasive device the author used.

Think about it as if you were asked to write a 50-minute essay describing the human face and what each part does. A clear essay would just focus on major features—eyes, nose, and mouth. A less effective essay might also try to discuss cheekbones, eyebrows, eyelashes, skin pores, chin clefts, and dimples as well. While all of these things are part of the face, it would be hard to get into detail about each of the parts in just 50 minutes.


And this is the eye, and this is the other eye, and this is the...other eye...and the other eye...and the other...wait...what's going on here?


What the College Board Doesn’t Tell You: 5 Secrets

Even though the SAT essay has clearly stated, publicly-available guidelines, there are a few secrets to writing the essay that most students don't know and that can give you a major advantage on the test.


#1: Read the Prompt Before the Passage

Why? Because the prompt includes the description of the author’s claim. Knowing what the author’s claim is going into the article can help keep you focused on the argument, rather than getting caught up in reading the passage (especially if the topic is one you're interested in).


#2: Your Facts Must Be Accurate…But Your Interpretation Doesn’t Have to Be

A big part of the Analysis score for the SAT essay is not just identifying the devices the author uses to build her argument, but explaining the effect that the use of these devices has on the reader. You don’t have to be completely, 100% accurate about the effect the passage has on the reader, because there is no one right answer. As long as you are convincing in your explanation and cite specific examples, you’ll be good.

Here's an example of an interpretation about what effect a persuasive device has on the reader (backed by evidence from the passage):

Lindsay appeals to the emotions of her readers by describing the forlorn, many-eyed creatures that stare reproachfully at her from old school notebook margins. The sympathy the readers feel for these forgotten doodles is expertly transferred to Lindsay herself when she draws the connection between the drawn monsters and her own life: “Often, I feel like one of these monsters—hidden away in my studio, brushes yearning to create what no one else cares to see.”

Now, you don't necessarily know for sure if "sympathy for the doodles" is what the author was going for in her passage. The SAT essay graders probably don't know either (unless one of them wrote the passage). But as long as you can make a solid case for your interpretation, using facts and quotes from the passage to back it up, you'll be good.


#3: You Should Write More Than One Page

This has always been true for the SAT essay, but for the first time ever, the College Board actually came out in The Official SAT Study Guide and explicitly said that length really does matter. Here's the description of a one-paragraph, 120-word-long student response that received a Writing score of 2/8 (bolding mine).

“Due to the brief nature of the response, there is not enough evidence of writing ability to merit a score higher than 1. Overall, this response demonstrates inadequate writing.” (source: The Official SAT Study Guide, p. 176)

You’ll have one page for (ungraded) scrap paper that you can use to plan out your essay, and four pages of writing paper for the essay—plan on writing at least two pages for your essay.


#4: Be Objective When Reading the Passage

Being able to stay detached while reading the passage you'll be writing the essay about can be tricky. This task might be especially difficult for students who were used to the old SAT essay (which pretty much made it mandatory for you to choose one side or the other). You’ll have to practice reading persuasive essays and gaining objectivity (so that you are able to write about how the argument is constructed, not whether it’s good or bad).

A good way to practice this is to read news articles on topics you care deeply about by people who hold the opposite view that you do. For instance, as a composer and violist/violinist, I might read articles about how children should not be encouraged to play musical instruments, since it holds no practical value later on in life (a view I disagree with vehemently). I would then work on my objectivity by jotting down the central ideas, most important details, and how these details relate to the central ideas of the article.

Being able to understand the central ideas in the passage and details without being sidetracked by rage (or other emotions) is key to writing an effective SAT essay.


"Always Wear a Helmet." ©2015-2016 by Samantha Lindsay. Used with permission.

Don't let the monster of rage distract you from your purpose.


#5: Memorize and Identify Specific Persuasive Techniques

Once you’re able to read articles objectively (as discussed in point #4 above), the next step is to be able to break down the essay passage's argument. To do this successfully, you'll need to be aware of some of the techniques that are frequently used to build arguments.

The SAT essay prompt does mention a few of these techniques (bolding mine):

As you read the passage below, consider how Lindsay uses

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.

It’s certainly possible to wing it and go into the test without knowing specific names of particular persuasive devices and just organically build up your essay from features you notice in the article. However, it's way easier to go into the essayknowing certain techniques that you can then scan the passage for.

For instance, after noting the central ideas and important details in the article about how more works of art should feature monsters, I would then work on analyzing the way the author built her argument. Does she use statistics in the article? Personal anecdotes? Appeal to emotion?

I discuss the top persuasive devices you should know in more detail in the article "6 SAT Essay Examples to Answer Every Prompt".


How to Get All the Necessary Components in 50 Minutes: 5 Step-By-Step Strategies

When you write an SAT essay, you only have 50 minutes to read, analyze, and write an essay, which means that you need a game plan going in. Here's a short step-by-step guide on how to write an effective SAT essay.


#1: Answer the Prompt

Don’t just summarize the passage in your essay, or identify persuasive devices used by the author—instead, be sure to actually analyze the way the author of the passage builds her argument. As The Official SAT Study Guidestates,

"[Y]our discussion should focus on what the author does, why he or she does it, and what effect this is likely to have on readers."

College Board makes a point of specifying this very point in its grading rubric as well—an essay that scores a 2 (out of 4) or below in Analysis "merely asserts, rather than explains [the persuasive devices'] importance." If you want to get at least a 3/4 (or a 6/8) in Analysis, you need to heed this warning and stay on task.


#2: Support Your Points With Concrete Evidence From the Passage

The best way to get a high Reading score for your essay is to quote from the passage appropriately to support your points. This shows not only that you’ve read the passage (without your having to summarize the passage at all), but also that you understand what the author is saying and the way the author constructed her argument.

As an alternative to using direct quotations from the passage, it’s also okay to paraphrase some of what you discuss. If you are explaining the author's argument in your own words, however, you need to be extra careful to make sure that the facts you're stating are accurate—in contrast to scoring on the old SAT essay, scoring on the new SAT essay takes into account factual inaccuracies and penalizes you for them.


#3: Keep Your Essay Organized

The SAT essay rubric states: “The response demonstrates a deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay.”

The main point to take away from this is that you should follow the standard structure for an SAT essay (introduction-body-body-conclusion). Using a basic four- to five-paragraph essay structure will both keep you organized and make it easier for the essay graders to follow your reasoning—a win-win situation!

Furthermore, you should connect each paragraph to each other through effective transitions. We'll give you ways to improve your performance in this area in the articles linked at the end of this article.


#4: Make Time to Read, Analyze, Plan, Write, and Revise

Make sure you allocate appropriate amounts of time for each of the steps you’ll need to take to write the essay—50 minutes may seem like a long time, but it goes by awfully quick with all the things you need to do.

Reading the passage, analyzing the argument, planning your essay, writing your essay, and revising are all important components for writing an 8/8/8 essay. For a breakdown of how much time to spend on each of these steps, be sure to check out our article on how to write an SAT essay, step-by-step.


"Watch Yourself." ©2015-2016 by Samantha Lindsay. Used with permission.


#5: Practice

The more you practice analysis and writing, the better you’ll get at the task of writing an SAT essay (as you work up to it a little at a time).

It's especially important to practice the analysis and writing components of the essay if you are a slow reader (since reading speed can be difficult to change). Being able to analyze and write quickly can help balance out the extra time you take to read and comprehend the material. Plus, the time you put into working on analysis and writing will yield greater rewards than time spent trying to increase your reading speed.

But don't forget: while it’s okay to break up the practice at first, you also really do need to get practice buckling down and doing the whole task in one sitting.


What’s Next?

This is just the beginning of improving your SAT essay score. Next, you actually need to put this into practice with a real SAT essay.

Looking to get even deeper into the essay prompt? Read our complete list of SAT essay prompts and our detailed explanation of the SAT essay prompt.

Hone your SAT essay writing skills with our articles about how to write a high-scoring essay, step by step and how to get a 8/8/8 on the SAT essay.


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