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ASU honors the passing of Professor Jeffrie G. Murphy, notable philosopher and author on forgiveness

Photo of Jeffrie Murphy

Jeffrie G. Murphy, ASU Regents Professor of Law, Philosophy and Religious Studies.

September 17, 2020

Arizona State University faculty, staff and students send their heartfelt sympathy to the family and friends of Jeffrie G. Murphy, Regents Professor of Law, Philosophy and Religious Studies for the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, who died Sept. 17 after a brief but cruel illness.

Before joining ASU in 1987, Murphy taught philosophy at the University of Arizona, where he was head of the Philosophy Department from 1972–76, and at the University of Minnesota. From 1981–85, he was chair of the Philosophy Department at ASU. He is also a past president of the American Philosophical Association, Pacific Division.

Murphy’s primary teaching and research areas were philosophy of law and jurisprudence, criminal law, ethics and religion, moral philosophy (including moral psychology), philosophy in literature/law and literature, and Immanuel Kant’s moral, political and legal philosophy. Over his decades of teaching at the University of Arizona and ASU, he mentored hundreds of students, keeping up correspondence and relationships with many over that entire time.

For those who knew Murphy, he was always larger than life: a big man with a booming voice and a strength of conviction in his work and scholarship that was never outmatched. His early experiences as head of the Philosophy Department led to a deep and abiding hatred of administration — which gave him ample time to explore his greatest passions: the teaching of gifted students and exploring the contours of moral philosophy and its connection to the law.

His work was nothing short of transformative in many fields. Over his 50-year career in academia, he was a prolific author with more than a dozen books and nearly 100 articles in law and philosophy. Although each was groundbreaking, he is perhaps best known for his skeptical views on modern criminal law and its focus on mercy, forgiveness and punishment. ASU Law will leave it to others to fully capture the depth of his work and its impact on multiple fields, but his appointment as a Regents Professor at ASU — the highest academic honor the university can bestow — his election as President of the American Philosophical Association in 2005, and his invited lectures at Cambridge and many others are tremendous signals of the admiration in which he was held by so many.

His work has been cited by hundreds, including in popular news columns, academic press and book reviews. He is well known for his work “Punishment and the Moral Emotions: Essays in Law, Morality, and Religion” (Oxford University Press, 2012) and the article “Remorse, Apology, and Mercy” (Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law) — which was included in the “Criminal Law Conversations” book project at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and published by Oxford University Press — and so many others.

In one of his later works, “Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits,” Murphy wrote: “It is not unreasonable to want repentance from a wrongdoer before forgiving that wrongdoer, since, in the absence of repentance, hasty forgiveness may harm both the forgiver and the wrongdoer. The forgiver may be harmed by a failure to show self-respect. The wrongdoer may be harmed by being deprived of an important incentive — the desire to be forgiven — that could move him toward repentance and moral rebirth.”

Those who knew Murphy best would often note, with a slight ribbing, that his views on retribution and repentance might be influenced, just slightly, by the obvious fact that he loved dogs more than people. He bonded with students, alumni and faculty over this particular adoration, and whenever some might be moved to take umbrage from an email or comment that Murphy took (and, yes, some were occasionally so moved), a quick witticism from him, an anecdote from Monty Python or, even more often, a truly important point on human nature and our own fallacies would quickly lead to the forgiveness for those transgressions that he might not have provided for himself. It also really helped that he loved dogs so much.

This is not Murphy's obituary. This cannot even come close to capturing the impact he had on his particular fields of inquiry, the incredible contribution he has made to the academy from his teaching, and the friendships he forged while here over the decades. This quick article is nothing more than a remembrance of this law school, its faculty, students and alumni who loved him and will miss him more than, quite frankly, he would ever have known or be willing to accept.

ASU Law is a lesser institution without him. We send all our love and sympathy to his family and his beloved wife, Ellen, and look forward to hearing from others on how they will miss him and how he impacted the world around him.

In following Murphy’s completely unsurprising last wishes, ASU will not be holding any memorial or service. Nor will ASU be seeking to provide a final lasting and appropriate reminder of his impact here at ASU Law. Instead, we merely ask that, in lieu of flowers or other donations, his friends provide donations to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

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