2nd Semester 2013/14: Moral Dilemmas and Verbal Protocol Analysis

Instructor: Gert-Jan Munneke
If you are interested in this project, please contact the instructor email.

Description: Moral dilemmas are all around us; many times they are trivial like whether or not to tell a white lie; but some can have severe, even life-or-death, consequences (e.g., the concept of collateral damage in military intervention). Many philosophical discussions focus on how humans should respond in these kinds of situations, whereas the question of how humans actually go about resolving these dilemmas receives less attention. This interdisciplinary research project will address the latter question by focusing on the (in)famous trolley problem in which one has to decide whether to let five men die or save them by killing an innocent bystander. People's judgments concerning this type of scenarios depend heavily upon a wide array of experimental manipulations, including the proximity to the victim, the social characteristics of the victims, etc. During this project, we will try to understand these dependencies by probing the reasoning processes of subjects. We will do this though interview techniques borrowed from`verbal protocol analysis'. The goal is to find reoccurring reasoning patterns and understand their formal nature, practical purpose, scope and limitations in order to build an empirically informed logic of moral reasoning.

Students will receive a crash course on verbal protocol analysis and learn to understand the strengths and weaknesses of this technique and how it can contribute to an interdisciplinary cooperation between logic and psychology. Another lecture will cover the relevant experimental literature on the moral judgment of trolley problems. After these introductory lectures, students will work on their own protocol, conduct an interview, analyze the results, present and discuss them in the group and finally write a joint paper.


  • Week 1:
    • Introductory lecture and overview of trolley problem literature.
    • Lecture on verbal protocol analysis.
    • Design interview protocol.
    • Individual meetings to discuss and revise interview protocol.
  • Week 2:
    • Individual meetings to discuss and revise interview protocol.
    • Conduct, transcribe and analyze interview.
  • Week 3:
    • Individual presentations of initial findings and group discussion.
  • Week 4:
    • Write joint report.

Prerequisites: There are no strict prerequisites although students who took the course `Rationality, Cognition and Reasoning' will already be familiar to the overall approach of the project.

Assessment: Students will be graded on the basis of their individual work (70%) and the joint paper (30%).


  • Christensen, J. & Gomila, A. (2012). Moral dilemmas in cognitive neuroscience of moral decision-making: A principled review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 36(4), 1249-1264.
  • Crutcher, R. J. (1994). Telling what we know: The use of verbal report methodologies in psychological research. Psychological Science, 5, 241-244.
  • Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1993). Protocol analysis: Verbal reports as data. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.