RC Practice with Explanation

Tips on how to approach CAT Reading Comprehension passages
  • Don’t get into the minor details of the passage; just focus on what each paragraph has to say
  • As you read, create a map of the passage; you must remember what thing is located where in the passage
  • Once you read the question, come back to the part of the passage that is likely to have the answer
  • Compare the options and eliminate the incorrect choices based on the evidence that you see in the passage
  • Choose the answer once you are convinced of the right choice


I eschew the notion of racial kinship. I do so in order to be free to claim what the distinguished political theorist Michael Sandel labels “the unencumbered self.” The unencumbered self is free and independent, “unencumbered by aims and attachments it does not choose for itself,” Sandel writes. “Freed from the sanctions of custom and tradition and inherited status, unbound by moral ties antecedent to choice, the self is installed as sovereign, cast as the author of the only obligations that constrain.” Sandel believes that the unencumbered self is an illusion and that the yearning for it is a manifestation of a shallow liberalism that “cannot account for certain moral and political obligations that we commonly recognize, even prize”—“obligations of solidarity, religious duties, and other moral ties that may claim us for reasons unrelated to a choice,” which are “indispensable aspects of our moral and political experience.”

Sandel’s objection to those who, like me, seek the unencumbered self is that they fail to appreciate loyalties that should be accorded moral force partly because they influence our identity, such that living by these attachments “is inseparable from understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are—as members of this family or city or nation or people, as bearers of that history, as citizens of this republic.” There is an important virtue in this assertion of the value of black life. It combats something still eminently in need of challenge: the assumption that because of their race black people are stupid, ugly, and low, and that because of their race white people are smart, beautiful, and righteous. But within some of the forms that this assertiveness has taken are important vices—including the belief that because of racial kinship blacks ought to value blacks more highly than others.

I shun racial pride because of my conception of what should properly be the object of pride for an individual: something that he or she has accomplished. I cannot feel pride in some state of affairs that is independent of my contribution to it. The color of my skin, the width of my nose, the texture of my hair, and the various other signs that prompt people to label me black constitute such a state of affairs. I did not achieve my racial designation. It was something I inherited—like my creed and socio-economic starting place and sex—and therefore something I should not be credited with.

In taking this position I follow Frederick Douglass, the great nineteenth-century reformer, who declared that “the only excuse for pride in individuals is in the fact of their own achievements.” I admire Sandel’s work and have learned much from it. But a major weakness in it is a conflation of “is” and “ought.” Sandel privileges what exists and has existed so much that his deference to tradition lapses into historical determinism. He faults the model of the unencumbered self because, he says, it cannot account for feelings of solidarity and loyalty that most people have not chosen to impose upon themselves but that they cherish nonetheless. This represents a fault, however, only if we believe that the unchosen attachments Sandel celebrates should be accorded moral weight. I am not prepared to do that simply on the basis that such attachments exist, have long existed, and are passionately felt. Feelings of primordial attachment often represent mere prejudice or superstition, a hangover of the childhood socialization from which many people never recover.

Question: With an eye towards the passage as a whole, which of the following represents the author’s primary focus?
[A] Identity formation as self-definition according to family, history, and culture, or as self-definition according to independent accomplishment
[B] The individual, unencumbered self and the validity of Michael Sandel’s position on this type of identity
[C] Racial kinship and how its rejection results in accomplishment
[D] Individual versus group consciousness
Option (A)

The question is essentially asking the scope of the author’s argument. Take a moment to predict this before scanning the choices. (A) takes some paraphrasing to untangle, but fits the author’s main focus: self-identity in relation to race and history.

Wrong Answers:

(B): Faulty Use of Detail. This is the scope of s1 and 2, but not that of the entire passage.

(C): Distortion. The author doesn’t argue that rejecting racial kinship causes individual accomplishment, only that the two can go hand-in-hand.

(D): Out of Scope. The author discusses racial pride, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as group consciousness, which is never discussed in the passage.

Question: In the passage the author discusses the political theorist Michael Sandel. In doing so he proposes that Sandel treats individuals’ inherited interpersonal connections with which of the following?
[A] Too little weight
[B] An unjustifiable moral force
[C] An unquestioning reverence
[D] A cursory critical treatment
Option (B)

Carefully review the scope of the question and both Sandel’s and the author’s opinions on it. What do they both think about inherited connections? The author thinks that they’re overrated, Sandel that they’re important. Only (B) and (C) roughly fit this breakdown. Of those, (B) fits the author’s argument more closely; the author argues in 4 that Sandel accords the connections mentioned in the question with moral weight.

Wrong Answers:

(A): Opposite. The author believes that inherited connections should be valued less, and so wouldn’t think this.

(C): Distortion. While Sandel does think that inherited connections are important, there’s nothing in the passage to suggest that he has reverence for them, let alone that it’s unquestioning. The author discusses Sandel’s reasoning at length, suggesting that his views on the matter are carefully-reasoned.

(D): Opposite. The author takes pains to show that Sandel goes into the topic in depth, well beyond a cursory critical treatment.

Question: Through his discussion of the works and beliefs of Michael Sandel, the author suggests all of the following characteristics of the encumbered self EXCEPT:
[A] it maintains many of the interpersonal connections established in childhood.
[B] it is influenced by history.
[C] it is the product of independent accomplishment.
[D] it is manifested in those who embrace racial kinship.
Option (C)

Carefully examine the wording of the question, which asks about the encumbered self. Since the author is a big fan of the unencumbered self, he’ll presumably feel negatively towards the encumbered self. (C) conflicts with the author’s point in 1 that the unencumbered self is “free and independent.” If this is true, the encumbered self must be the opposite.

Wrong Answers:

(A): Opposite. The author discusses the encumbered self as the product of childhood attachments in 4.

(B): Opposite. The author discusses history as a foundation and even to some extent definition of the encumbered self in s1 and 4.

(D): Opposite. This fits with the author’s contention that racial pride and the encumbered self go hand-in-hand.

Strategy Point:

Read carefully! Missing a negative or a lack of one can easily lead to the wrong answer even with otherwise perfect reasoning.

Question: The author’s indication that Sandel’s “deference to tradition lapses into historical determinism” (lines 51-52) suggests that:
[A] Sandel’s position undermines the belief that individuals forge their own lives and connections.
[B] historical events can often influence the actions of men in the present.
[C] respecting tradition is ultimately harmful.
[D] individuals should not expend energy paying homage to significant historical events or people.
Option (A)

Go back to review the lines in context. Why does the author think that Sandel’s deference to tradition is negative? It gets in the way of the unencumbered self and the ability to make one’s own decisions. (A) says the same.

Wrong Answers:

(B): Distortion. While Sandel might believe this, the author would argue that history doesn’t necessarily shape individual destinies.

(C): Distortion. Though the author thinks that one shouldn’t be bound to tradition, he wouldn’t go so far as to argue that it’s harmful to respect it.

(D): Distortion. As above, though the author would argue that we shouldn’t be bound to past people and events, we shouldn’t necessarily ignore them altogether either.

Question: Which of the following might the author find antithetical to his stance on identity, racial kinship, and racial pride?
[A] The right of every student to equal treatment by professors and teachers
[B] The Million Man March, in which 500,000 African-American men gathered for a demonstration of racial solidarity in Washington, DC in 1995
[C] The stance of public municipal hospital emergency rooms to provide all citizens with healthcare regardless of whether or not they are indigent
[D] The recognition of Elijah Lovejoy, a white man murdered in the early nineteenth century for supporting the abolition of slavery
Option (B)

The author’s view is that one should make one’s own decisions without being tied to ideas of race and history. Look for an answer choice that contradicts this: Since (B) is an event consisting of a single race gathering to advance racial identify, the author would take issue. He thinks that racial identity should take a back seat to individual decisions.

Wrong Answers:

(A): Opposite. The author would be in favor of treatment that isn’t based on race or history.

(C): Opposite. Since the author is in favor of an individual identity that isn’t based on history, which poverty tends to be, he’d be all for hospitals that didn’t discriminate based on economic conditions.

(D): Opposite. The author would have no problem with recognizing an individual achievement. In this case, the achievement would be all the better in the author’s eyes since it was an attempt to eliminate a system based on race.

Question: The author’s attitude toward Sandel’s stance on the unencumbered self can best be described as:
[A] impersonal and academic in its consideration of both sides of the issue.
[B] one of strong, yet tempered disagreement.
[C] marginally hostile.
[D] dismissive.
Option (B)

Untangle the question carefully. What does the author think about Sandel’s stance on the unencumbered self? Sandel doesn’t support the unencumbered self; the author does. Therefore, the author must disagree with Sandel. Three answer choices express disagreement, but only (B) reflects the sort of evenhanded discussion in which the author engages.

Wrong Answers:

(A): Opposite. The author definitely takes a side, and does so in a personal fashion, referring to himself in the first person throughout the essay.

(C): Distortion. There’s no evidence of hostility in the argument against Sandel’s position.

(D): Distortion. Though the author disagrees with Sandel, there’s no dismissiveness: he "admire[s] Sandel's work and [has] learned much from it." (lines 48-49).

Strategy Point:

Pay attention to the author’s tone in addition to the overall stance. Many answer choices will distort the author’s position with extreme wording.

Question: The author states his definition of “what should properly be the object of pride for an individual” (lines 34-35) in order to:
[A] exhibit his support of Frederick Douglass’s opinion at the end of paragraph one.
[B] undermine what Sandel categorizes as “the unencumbered self.”
[C] lay the foundation for his argument against racial solidarity.
[D] ensure that readers do not perceive him as having the yearning that Michael Sandel calls a “manifestation of shallow liberalism”.
Option (C)

An evaluation question: read the lines, paying careful attention to your map in the process. The author mentions the quoted phrase immediately after saying that he rejects racial pride. It’s reasonable to think that the purpose of the phrase, then, is to set up the argument that racial pride is unjustified. (C) says the same.

Wrong Answers:

(A): Faulty Use of Detail. The author does support Frederick Douglass, but to support the idea that racial pride is unjustified, not as an end in itself.

(B): Opposite. The author supports the unencumbered self.

(D): Opposite. The author describes his view as the same one that Sandel considers to be “shallow liberalism.” In any case, the author doesn't use this phrase to convince his readers to feel any particular way about him.

Strategy Point:

Always map with an eye to purpose rather than simple summary. Ask why the author writes something.

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