Religious Ethics

Assistant Director of Graduate Studies: Jennifer Herdt
Teaching Group in Religious Ethics:
Jennifer Herdt (Divinity), Willis Jenkins (Divinity), Frederick Simmons (Divinity), Emilie Townes (Divinity)

Language Requirements
Areas of Competence
Course Work
Some Course Possibilities within the Field
The Religious Ethics Colloquium
Teaching Fellowships
The Nature and Purpose of Qualifying Examinations
Qualifying Examination Description and Procedures
Dissertation Proposal
Progress to Degree
Contact Information



The doctoral program in Religious Ethics at Yale has a longstanding and distinguished tradition of training students with equal rigor and commitment in theological ethics, philosophical ethics, and social ethics. Situated within the vibrant conversation that constitutes the contemporary discipline of religious studies, the program draws on the expertise of members of the Graduate Faculty in Religious Studies and members of the faculty of Yale Divinity School. Each student admitted into the program is given five full years of funding to support their course of study. Graduates of the program go on to positions at major research universities, liberal arts colleges, and both denominational and non-denominational seminaries; recent graduates of Yale’s Religious Ethics doctoral program are now faculty members at Duke Divinity School, Fordham University, Princeton University, the University of Chester (UK), the University of Chicago, the University of Notre Dame, Villanova University, and Yale Divinity School, among others.

These guidelines are intended to provide information about the program in Religious Ethics within the Department of Religious Studies: to identify norms and expectations that serve as points of reference from which a program of study can be developed, and also to explain the requirements for the degree in this particular field and the procedures for meeting them. All students must work with the faculty, the Assistant Director of Graduate Studies for Ethics, and the Director of Graduate Studies, to define their own particular program. Students are strongly encouraged to meet with the Ethics faculty early in their academic program to define their needs and to design a course of study that will prepare them for their qualifying examinations and for subsequent work on the dissertation.


Language Requirements

Students admitted to the Ph.D. program in Ethics are expected to possess or quickly acquire proficiency in two scholarly languages, normally German and French. Students may propose to substitute another language for one of these, e.g., Spanish, if their particular scholarly interests warrant this step. Language requirements must be completed prior to the third year in order to remain in good academic standing. For further description of policy and procedure, see the departmental brochure.


Areas of Competence

Ph.D. students in Ethics are expected to demonstrate competency across a range of literature, thinkers, and problems in three major areas: theological ethics (Christian, and another religious tradition if desired); philosophical ethics (history of western moral philosophy and either Franco-German existentialism and phenomenology or Anglo-American moral philosophy); and social ethics (religious social teachings, sociopolitical writings, biomedical issues, environmental issues, or another area of contemporary concern). Faculty and individual students will determine precise constellations of appropriate competencies.


Course Work

Students are required to take a minimum of twelve courses , and this is normally done during the first two years of study. A minimum quality requirement, set by the Graduate School, must be met. This stipulates that a student must earn a grade of Honors in two graduate courses. The purpose of course work is to acquire comprehensive knowledge of the field and prepare for the qualifying examinations. In addition to taking regular courses offered by the Department of Religious Studies and other departments, students may remedy gaps in knowledge through directed readings or by auditing appropriate courses. Students in Ethics usually take courses at the Divinity School and in the Department of Philosophy, and in other departments and schools in the University such as Political Science, Sociology, the Bioethics Center, the Law School, Medical School, School of Forestry, etc., according to their particular interests. The Department of Religious Studies also has a joint degree program with the Department of African American Studies.


Some Course Possibilities within the Field:

Political Theology (Herdt)
Virtue and Hypocrisy: Moral Thought in Early Modern Christianity (Herdt)
Imago Dei and Human Dignity (Herdt)
Natural Law and Christian Ethics (Herdt)
Biomedical Ethics in Theological Perspective (Herdt)
Value and Transcendence (Herdt)
Virtue and Christian Ethics (Herdt)
Sex, Marriage, and Family (Herdt)
Ethical Formation (Herdt)
Environmental Ethics (Jenkins)
Scripture and Social Ethics (Jenkins)
Theology, Ethics, and Environment (Jenkins)
Social Ethics (Jenkins)
Neighborhood Ethics (Jenkins)
Global Ethics (Jenkins)
Ecology and Ethics (Jenkins)
Introduction to Christian Ethics I (Simmons)
Introduction to Christian Ethics II (Simmons)
The Ethics of Saint Augustine (Simmons)
Ethics and Human Nature (Simmons)
Contemporary Cosmology and Christian Ethics (Simmons)
Warrior Chants and Unquiet Spirits (Townes)
Vexations: Religion and Politics in the Black Community (Townes)
What's in a Text (Townes)
The Political Economy of Misery (Townes)
Metaphors of Evil (Townes)
African American Moral and Social Thought (Townes)

The Religious Ethics Colloquium

Faculty and doctoral students in Religious Ethics gather three times a semester to discuss work in progress. A brief (15-page) paper by a student or faculty member is distributed in advance to the group, and the colloquium meets for an hour-long discussion followed by a social. Doctoral students in Religious Ethics are required to participate in the Colloquium and to present to the group at least once during the third year of residency; multiple presentations are anticipated and encouraged over a student’s course of study. The Colloquium offers a regular occasion for all doctoral students and faculty in the field of Religious Ethics to come together for scholarly work. It has proved a valuable asset of our doctoral program for both students and professors.


Teaching Fellowships

All doctoral students in religious studies are required to serve as teaching fellows during years three and four in exchange for their stipends. Students are not allowed to serve as teaching fellows during years one and two. Normally, students will receive a dissertation fellowship during the fifth year and not therefore serve as teaching fellows during that year. The dissertation fellowship, however, may be taken later than the fifth year, in which case students may apply to serve as teaching fellows even after the fourth year.

Most teaching fellowships require the fellow to attend lectures by the instructing professor and lead one or two discussion sections per week. Some fellowships require less teaching and sometimes only assistance in grading. Teaching fellowships offer an opportunity to gain fluency with the subject matter of the program and to develop pedagogical and lecturing skills under the supervision of an experienced teacher, in addition to providing financial resources.


Nature and Purpose of Qualifying Examinations

The qualifying examinations in Ethics are taken after the conclusion of required course work and must be completed before admission to candidacy. In order to remain in good academic standing, students must complete their examinations and have an accepted dissertation proposal prior to the start of their seventh semester in the program. Hence, students should plan to take their examinations during their third year (see timeline below). Preparation for the qualifying examinations is comprised of a combination of course work and supplementary individual readings. As a general rule, the student should strive for the level of knowledge and expertise required to construct and teach a graduate-level course on the subject. The examinations are not meant to test the students' ability as a research scholar. Course work, research papers, and the dissertation will do that.


Qualifying Examinations Descriptions and Procedures

The qualifying examinations include written field examinations in three areas (theological ethics, philosophical ethics, and social ethics), followed by an oral review.

The field exams are meant to allow students to exhibit mastery of a range of core literature, thinkers, and problems in each of the three areas :

The field examination in Theological Ethics normally includes historical and contemporary ethical literature, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. Students are encouraged to develop competence as well in the ethics of a tradition other than Christianity.

The field examination in Philosophical Ethics includes the history and literature of moral philosophy in the west, and at least one of the following from the modern period: Franco-German existentialism and phenomenology or Anglo-American moral philosophy.

The field examination in Social Ethics includes general materials in the social teachings of a religious tradition, sociopolitical writings in the West, and at least one of the following: ethics and sociology of religion; ethics and psychology; ethics and economics; selected issues in an area of contemporary societal concern, e.g., medical ethics.

Students will submit to the faculty in the teaching group in Ethics a list of six questions, two for each of the three field examinations. The scope and focus of each question is a matter of discussion and negotiation with the faculty. The questions will be comprised of a paragraph stating the problem to be explored, together with a bibliography of texts for which the student will take responsibility. Bibliographies should indicate specific pages and page number totals; an average of 1000 pages per exam is considered normal. Responsibility for formulating the final version of the questions rests with the faculty. They will attempt to do justice to the questions submitted to them, though they may rework and add to the questions. Every effort will be made to assure comprehensiveness without surprise or misunderstanding.

Writing of the exams is done over a single 14-day period. While students may not take their examinations prior to the completion of coursework, they may opt to prepare one or more questions/bibliographies in concert with directed reading courses or other courses, as long as the examination bibliography goes significantly beyond the reading list for the course. The student may opt for writing in either of two modes:

a) After the questions are distributed to the student, he or she will have a 14-day period to prepare answers. He or she may consult whatever books and articles are deemed most helpful. The answers finally submitted will compromise in toto no more than 90 typewritten double-spaced pages.

b) Questions will be distributed to the student, half on the first day of the 14-day period, the other half on the 8th day of the same period. In preparing answers, the student may, again, consult whatever books and articles are deemed most helpful. On the 7th day, and on the 14th, the student will appear at the departmental office and write the answers. The student may write for six hours on each of these two days, and will submit his or her answers by the end of each of the two days. During these six-hour exams the student may not consult books, articles or notes.

Within six weeks, and if at all possible within two weeks, an oral review will be conducted by the faculty examiners. Normally, the examination board will include at least three members, at least two of whom are members of the ethics teaching group. This oral exam is given in order to provide the student with an opportunity to clarify obscurities in what he or she may have written, to expand on what he or she would have liked to have written but lacked time to elucidate adequately, and to permit faculty members to consider areas inadequately covered in the written exams.


Dissertation Proposal

The dissertation proposal is prepared following the completion of the qualifying exams. It is worked out in consultation with the faculty, and submitted to the teaching group in the field, who meet with the student for a two-hour colloquium to assess the scope, significance, and feasibility of the topic and the student's preparation to accomplish it in a reasonable time. After approval of the proposal, a two-page, single spaced summary of the proposal is submitted to the entire graduate faculty in Religious Studies and thence, if none object, to the Dean of the Graduate School. The proposal itself ordinarily should include a statement of the precise nature of the topic, its significance, its relationship to previous work, and the method and sources to be employed. It should also include an outline of chapters to be written. The proposal should be no more than 20 pp. in length, plus bibliography. After acceptance of the prospectus, the student is admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. Students must be admitted to candidacy by the beginning of their eighth semester in the program.



Students normally begin writing their dissertation in the fourth year and normally will have finished by the end of the sixth. The completed dissertation is evaluated in writing and approved by a committee of three readers and the departmental faculty. There is no oral examination on the dissertation.

Recent and current dissertation topics in Ethics include: Prospects for Moral Consensus in the Medical Profession; The Ethical Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar; The Trinitarian Ethics of Jonathan Edwards; Love and Citizenship: Augustine and the Ethics of Liberalism; Retrieving Luther's Ethic: Christian Identity and Action; The Romance of Innocent Sexuality; The Individual and the Ethics of War: Christian and American Interpretation of the Jus in Bello; Preemption and the War on Terror: Morality, Law and the Use of Force; Political Love and Christian Social Ethics in Korea; Four Types of Calling: The Ethics of Vocation in Kierkegaard, Brunner, Scheler, and Barth; The Limits of Hospitality; Working the Body, Working the Spirit: Afro-Diasporic Women’s Labor and an Ethics of Embodiment; Theological Voluntarism and the Natural Law.


Progress to Degree

The Ph.D. in Religious Ethics is designed to be completed in five years, corresponding to the five full years of funding given to each student admitted to the program.

A typical course toward the degree is as follows:

Years 1 and 2: Three to four courses each semester , taken within the Religious Studies Department and in other departments and schools throughout the university as appropriate; optional preparation of one or more questions and bibliographies for qualifying examinations; regular participation in the Religious Ethics Colloquium.

Note: It should be remembered that all language requirements not already met must be completed during the first two years of course work but no later than the beginning of the third year of the program. By rule of the Graduate School, students must be certified in German and French (or other approved language(s)) before being allowed to register for the fall semester of the third year (i.e., term 5).

Year 3: Preparation and completion of the qualifying examinations; participation in and presentation to the Religious Ethics Colloquium; teaching fellowship; preparation of the dissertation prospectus.

     - End of the second week of the Fall semester: Preliminary examination topics/bibliographies due to faculty examination board.
     - Eighth week of the Fall semester: Final examination topics/bibliographies due
     - Two weeks prior to written examinations: Faculty examiners formulate questions, which are compiled by the ADGS
     - Spring break or early May: Written qualifying examinations
     - April/May: Oral qualifying examination
     - Summer: Preparation of dissertation prospectus

Note: By rule of the Graduate School, the dissertation prospectus must be approved by the department before registering for term 8 (i.e., before the beginning of the spring semester of the fourth year). Thus the dissertation colloquium and approval of the dissertation prospectus is to be done no later than the fall semester of the fourth year (term 7).

Year 4: Dissertation colloquium and approval of dissertation topic, research and writing of the dissertation; regular participation in the Religious Ethics Colloquium; teaching fellowship.

Year 5: Research and writing of the dissertation; regular participation in the Religious Ethics Colloquium; dissertation fellowship.


Contact Information

The Department of Religious Studies
451 College Street
P.O. Box 208287
New Haven, CT 06520-8287
Phone: (203) 432-0828