Compassion and the criminal justice system: stumbling along towards a jurisprudence of love and forgiveness




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Cambridge Journals



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As the title suggests, Jeffrie G. Murphy’s latest anthology of thirteen essays comprises an agglomeration of his thoughts on punishment and forgiveness along with the moral emotions of guilt, remorse, resentment, shame, love and jealousy. All were written and published in law and philosophy journals between 1999 and 2011, with the exception of the final chapter in which he returns to an earlier passion for Kant’s moral, political and legal theory in relation to duelling, infanticide, shipwrecks and the right of necessity. Murphy’s enduring commitment to the quasi-Kantian ideal of human dignity is articulated by reference to the social significance of a religious framework within which, he claims, it is possible to elucidate an appropriately moral vision of punishment for criminal justice decision-making. Although the investigation of moral emotions is not purported to deliver solutions in the form of a set of precise rules or principles capable of producing specific outcomes, he provides normative direction by an appeal to the core values which comprise the traditional Christian ethic of forgiveness. Because, according to Christianity, we are all created in God’s image, there is resemblance between all human beings which means we are able to identify with the sentiments of others. Mindful of our own fallibility, therefore, Murphy urges compassion even for the serial killer in recognition of the innocent child he once was, quoting novelist William Trevor in Felicia’s Journey: ‘lost within a man who murdered, there was a soul like any other soul, purity itself it surely once had been’ (pp. 17-19). That is not to trivialise criminal behaviour and the harm done – the danger to self-respect, respect for the victim and for the moral order itself are not to be disregarded – rather it is suggested that in this way our moral judgments are appropriately tempered. By finding commonalities between ourselves and another, it is easier to ensure that a rightful demand for just punishment does not serve as a rationalisation for sadistic cruelty. Forgiveness, as part of the process of overcoming resentment, is also discussed in respect of heinous third-party crimes which involve historic injustices for which an entire society may be culpable such as the Holocaust, and for which appropriate legal punishment is not always feasible. Each essay presents a variety of divergent moral philosophies and concepts, poetry and literary works which are explored in order to illuminate the role played by our sensibilities on various theories of punishment and, significantly, their ability to enhance or endanger the legal and moral order.




Shaw, J.J.A. (2015) Compassion and the criminal justice system: stumbling along towards a jurisprudence of love and forgiveness. International Journal of Law in Context, 11 (1), pp. 92-107


Research Institute

Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA)