Skip to main content

Law professor publishes book of essays on 'law, morality and religion'

February 21, 2012

A collection of essays by ASU Regents’ Professor Jeffrie G. Murphy presents the noted scholar’s recent ideas, refined during a career spanning four decades, on punishment, forgiveness and the emotions of resentment, shame, guilt, remorse, love and jealousy.

"Punishment and the Moral Emotions: Essays in Law, Morality, and Religion" has been published by Oxford University Press. It represents a continuation of the author’s thoughts in this area which he introduced in the book, "Forgiveness and Mercy" (1988, Cambridge University Press), co-authored by the late Jean Hampton, and in the book, "Getting Even – Forgiveness and its Limits" (2003, Oxford University Press).

Murphy is the Regents’ Professor of Law, Philosophy & Religious Studies at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

The new volume is Murphy’s fourth essay collection, following "Character, Liberty and Law – Kantian Essays on Theory and Practice" (1999), "Retribution Reconsidered" (1992), and "Retribution, Justice, and Therapy" (1979).

"Punishment and the Moral Emotions: Essays in Law, Morality, and Religion" reveals a transition in Murphy’s thinking on issues pertaining to moral philosophy, criminal law, forgiveness and the moral emotions, he said.

“These latest essays represent, to some degree, a greater caution in what had been my overly enthusiastic defense of retribution – not a total abandonment, but a more cautious and qualified defense,” Murphy said. “I have found myself developing more sympathy for religion, and I began to add a religious framework to my previous ways of thinking about these issues. Also, I came to fear that an expressed desire to give a criminal his ‘just deserts’ can sometimes be driven by such base passions as cruelty – a concern expressed in my essay ‘Legal Moralism and Retribution Revisited.’”

The book contains 12 additional essays with intriguing titles, ranging from “Moral Epistemology, the Retributive Emotions, and the ‘Clumsy Moral Philosophy’ of Jesus Christ,” to “Shame Creeps Through Guilt and Feels Like Retribution” to “The Case of Dostoevsky’s General: Some Ruminations on Forgiving the Unforgivable.”

Murphy wrote each essay by invitation and for delivery at public lectures or symposia or for volumes on specific topics. Several were the basis for the Stanton Lecture series which he was invited by the Cambridge Divinity Faculty to deliver at Cambridge University in 2010. Oxford University Press originally had asked him to submit them separately for publication.

“Preparing these lectures helped me to form the judgment that the essays do hang together around common themes and thus, I hope, make the present collection a genuine book and not just a random assortment,” Murphy said.

In his review of the book, Professor John Witte Jr., Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory Law School, describes Murphy as “our surest and sagest guide across the contested boundary lines between law and morality, crime and sin, retribution and rehabilitation.

“This volume not only reveals his trademark erudition in exploring the most fundamental questions of crime and punishment,” writes Witte, Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and Alonzo L. McDonald Distinguished Professor at Emory. “It also shows the humility of a wise and seasoned scholar. You cannot read this volume without being persuaded by its argument and moved by its passion.”

Douglas Sylvester, interim dean of the College of Law, said "Punishment and the Moral Emotions: Essays in Law, Morality, and Religion" is additional proof of Murphy’s far-reaching influence in multiple areas of law and philosophy.

“What sets Jeff apart as a scholar is his many interests and his ability to influence and engage scholars from multiple disciplines,” Sylvester said. “His groundbreaking and provocative works in moral theory and their intimate connection with normative critiques of modern criminal law have made him one of the foremost scholars in both fields. We are exceedingly proud to have Jeff on our faculty. His interdisciplinary work is emblematic of the boundless pursuit of knowledge we are dedicated to pursuing at the College of Law and we congratulate him on this tremendous achievement.”

In the introduction to his book, Murphy notes that he first became interested in the role of emotions in punishment and condemnation nearly 30 years ago when he was invited by the journal, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, to contribute an essay on punishment or a related topic. He already had written in defense of punishment, and so decided to write about forgiveness, a topic he’d not considered before.

Murphy came to see the complexities of forgiveness while reading sermons (genuine philosophical essays) about resentment and forgiveness by Joseph Butler, an 18th Century English bishop. Butler believed that a certain degree of victim anger and resentment against being wronged is justified and quite consistent with a gospel of love, but he also believed that forgiveness (as the transcending of resentment) is required in many circumstances. Over the years, while not abandoning his view that there tends to be too much uncritical over-promotion of forgiveness in popular culture, various self-help books, and some forms of uncritical religious enthusiasm, Murphy began to think that his own  previous understanding of the subject was too narrow and too stingy.

“Although I still believe that repentance by the wrongdoer is the best way to open a door to forgiveness by the wronged, I tended to overestimate its role and gave rather short shrift to other possible doors,” Murphy writes in the introduction. “I have more recently considered with sympathy other possibly legitimate acts of forgiveness – in at least some meaningful senses of the concept of forgiveness – that do not demand repentance as a precondition.”

Herbert Morris of the University of California, Los Angeles, described Murphy as “a distinguished philosopher (who) engages topics of great interest to philosophers and non-philosophers alike – the nature of guilt, shame, remorse, forgiveness, repentance, love, jealousy, punishment, and their roles in our lives.

“Murphy’s approach is analytic; his arguments are clearly presented; his style is personal and engaging; insights are frequently accompanied by apposite quotes from poetry and fiction,” said Morris, professor emeritus of law and philosophy at UCLA. “There is an appealing humility and openness to the views of others. Readers will be drawn in by both the drama of his engagement with his earlier views that he now finds wanting as well as the ongoing drama of his responses to others with whom he disagrees.”

Murphy is a Regents’ Professor of Law, Philosophy & Religious Studies at ASU, and his primary teaching and research areas are philosophy of law and jurisprudence, criminal law, ethics and religion, moral philosophy (including moral psychology), philosophy in literature/law and literature, and Kant’s moral, political and legal philosophy. He is a past-president of American Philosophical Association.