Iris Murdoch was born in Phibsborough, Dublin, Ireland, the daughter of Irene Alice (née Richardson 1899–1985) and Wills John Hughes Murdoch. Her father, a civil servant, came from a mainly Presbyterian sheep farming family from Hillhall, County Down. In 1915, he enlisted as a soldier in King Edward's Horse and served in France during the First World War before being commissioned as a Second lieutenant. Her mother had trained as a singer before Iris was born, and was from a middle class Church of Ireland family in Dublin. Iris Murdoch's parents first met in Dublin when her father was on leave and were married in 1918. Iris was the couple's only child. When she was a few weeks old the family moved to London, where her father had joined the Ministry of Health as a second class clerk.
Murdoch was educated in progressive independent schools, entering the Froebel Demonstration School in 1925 and attending Badminton School in Bristol as a boarder from 1932 to 1938. In 1938 she went up to Somerville College, Oxford, with the intention of studying English, but switched to Classics. At Oxford she studied philosophy with Donald M. MacKinnon and attended Eduard Fraenkel's seminars on Agamemnon. She was awarded a First Class Honours degree in 1942. After leaving Oxford she went to work in London for HM Treasury. In June 1944 she left the Treasury and went to work for the UNRRA. At first she was stationed in London at the agency's European Regional Office. In 1945 she was transferred first to Brussels, then to Innsbruck, and finally to Graz, Austria, where she worked in a refugee camp. She left the UNRRA in 1946.
From 1947 to 1948 Iris Murdoch studied philosophy as a postgraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge. She met Wittgenstein at Cambridge but did not hear him lecture, as he had left his Trinity College professorship before she arrived. In 1948 she became a fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford, where she taught philosophy until 1963. From 1963 to 1967 she taught one day a week in the General Studies department at the Royal College of Art
In 1956 Murdoch married John Bayley, a literary critic, novelist, and from 1974 to 1992 Warton Professor of English at Oxford University, whom she had met in Oxford in 1954. The unusual romantic partnership lasted more than forty years until Murdoch's death. Bayley thought that sex was "inescapably ridiculous." Murdoch in contrast had "multiple affairs with both men and women which, on discomposing occasions, [Bayley] witnessed for himself".
Iris Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net, was published in 1954. She had previously published essays on philosophy, and the first monograph about Jean-Paul Sartre published in English. She went on to produce 25 more novels and additional works of philosophy, as well as poetry and drama. In 1976 she was named to the Commander of Order of the British Empire and in 1987 was made a Dame Commander of Order of the British Empire. She was awarded honorary degrees by the University of Bath (DLitt,1983), University of Cambridge (1993) and Kingston University (1994), among others. She was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982.
Her last novel, Jackson's Dilemma, was published in 1995. Iris Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1997 and died in 1999 in Oxford.
For some time, Murdoch's influence and achievements as a philosopher were eclipsed by her success as a novelist, but recent appraisals have increasingly accorded her a substantial role in postwar Anglo-American philosophy, particularly for her unfashionably prescient work in moral philosophy and her reinterpretation of Aristotle and Plato. Martha Nussbaum has argued for Murdoch's "transformative impact on the discipline" of moral philosophy because she directed her analysis not at the once-dominant matters of will and choice, but at those of attention (how people learn to see and conceive of one another) and phenomenal experience (how the sensory "thinginess" of life shapes moral sensibility).
In a recent survey of Murdoch's philosophical work, Justin Broackes points to several distinctive features of Murdoch's moral philosophy, including a "moral realism or ‘naturalism’, allowing into the world cases of such properties as humility or generosity; an anti‐scientism; a rejection of Humean moral psychology; a sort of ‘particularism’; special attention to the virtues; and emphasis on the metaphor of moral perception or ‘seeing’ moral facts." Broackes also notes that Murdoch's influence on the discipline of philosophy was sometimes indirect, since it impacted both her contemporaries and the following generation of philosophers, particularly Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, John McDowell, and Bernard Williams.
Her philosophical work was influenced by Simone Weil (from whom she borrows the concept of 'attention'), and by Plato, under whose banner she claimed to fight. In re-animating Plato, she gives force to the reality of the Good, and to a sense of the moral life as a pilgrimage from illusion to reality. From this perspective, Murdoch's work offers perceptive criticism of Kant, Sartre and Wittgenstein ('early' and 'late'). Her most central parable, which appears in The Sovereignty of Good, asks us (in Nussbaum's succinct account), "to imagine a mother-in-law, M, who has contempt for D, her daughter-in-law. M sees D as common, cheap, low. Since M is a self-controlled Englishwoman, she behaves (so Murdoch stipulates) with perfect graciousness all the while, and no hint of her real view surfaces in her acts. But she realizes, too, that her feelings and thoughts are unworthy, and likely to be generated by jealousy and an excessively keen desire to hang on to her son. So she sets herself a moral task: she will change her view of D, making it more accurate, less marred by selfishness. She gives herself exercises in vision: where she is inclined to say 'coarse,' she will say, and see, 'spontaneous.' Where she is inclined to say 'common,' she will say, and see, 'fresh and naive.' As time goes on, the new images supplant the old. Eventually M does not have to make such an effort to control her actions: they flow naturally from the way she has come to see D." This is how M cultivates a pattern of behavior that leads her to view D "justly or lovingly". The parable is partly meant to show (against Oxford contemporaries including R. M. Hare and Stuart Hampshire) the importance of the 'inner' life to moral action. Seeing another aright can depend on overcoming jealousy, and discoveries about the world involve inner work.
Her novels, in their attention and generosity to the inner lives of individuals, follow the tradition of novelists like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, George Eliot, and Proust, besides showing an abiding love of Shakespeare. There is however great variety in her achievement, and the richly layered structure and compelling realistic comic imagination of The Black Prince (1973) is very different from the early comic work Under the Net (1954) or The Unicorn (1963). The Unicorn can be read as a sophisticated Gothic romance, or as a novel with Gothic trappings, or perhaps as a parody of the Gothic mode of writing. The Black Prince, for which Murdoch won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is a study of erotic obsession, and the text becomes more complicated, suggesting multiple interpretations, when subordinate characters contradict the narrator and the mysterious "editor" of the book in a series of afterwords. Though her novels differ markedly, and her style developed, themes recur. Her novels often include upper-middle-class male intellectuals caught in moral dilemmas, gay characters, refugees, Anglo-Catholics with crises of faith, empathetic pets, curiously "knowing" children and sometimes a powerful and almost demonic male "enchanter" who imposes his will on the other characters—a type of man Murdoch is said to have modelled on her lover, the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti.
Murdoch was awarded the Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, the Sea, a finely detailed novel about the power of love and loss, featuring a retired stage director who is overwhelmed by jealousy when he meets his erstwhile lover after several decades apart. An authorised collection of her poetic writings, Poems by Iris Murdoch, appeared in 1997, edited by Paul Hullah and Yozo Muroya. Several of her works have been adapted for the screen, including the British television series of her novels An Unofficial Rose and The Bell. J. B. Priestley's dramatisation of her 1961 novel A Severed Head starred Ian Holm and Richard Attenborough.
In 1997, she was awarded the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for "a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature".
Iris Murdoch won a scholarship to study at Vassar College in 1946, but was refused a visa to enter the United States because she had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1938, while a student at Oxford. She left the party in 1942, when she went to work at the Treasury, but remained sympathetic to communism for several years. In later years she was allowed to visit the United States, but always had to obtain a waiver from the provisions of the McCarran Act, which barred Communist Party members and former members from entering the country. In a 1990 Paris Review interview she said that her membership of the Communist Party had made her see "how strong and how awful it [Marxism] is, certainly in its organized form".
Aside from her Communist Party membership, her Irish heritage is the other sensitive aspect of Murdoch's political life that seems to attract interest. Part of the interest revolves around the fact that, although Irish by both birth and traced descent on both sides, Murdoch does not display the full set of political opinions that are sometimes assumed to go with this origin: "No one ever agrees about who is entitled to lay claim to Irishness. Iris's Belfast cousins today call themselves British, not Irish... [but] with both parents brought up in Ireland, and an ancestry within Ireland both North and South going back three centuries, Iris has as valid a claim to call herself Irish as most North Americans have to call themselves American". Conradi notes A.N. Wilson's record that Murdoch regretted the sympathetic portrayal of the Irish nationalist cause she had given earlier in The Red and the Green, and a competing defence of the book at Caen in 1978. The novel while broad of sympathy is hardly an unambiguous celebration of the 1916 rising, dwelling upon bloodshed, unintended consequences and the evils of romanticism, besides celebrating selfless individuals on both sides. Later, of Ian Paisley, Iris Murdoch stated "[he] sincerely condemns violence and did not intend to incite the Protestant terrorists. That he is emotional and angry is not surprising, after 12–15 years of murderous IRA activity. All this business is deep in my soul, I'm afraid." In private correspondence with her close friend and fellow philosopher Philippa Foot, she remarked in 1978 that she felt "unsentimental about Ireland to the point of hatred" and, of a Franco-Irish conference she had attended in Caen in 1982, said that "the sounds of all those Irish voices made me feel privately sick".
Peter J. Conradi's 2001 biography was the fruit of long research and authorised access to journals and other papers. It is also a labour of love, and of a friendship with Murdoch that extended from a meeting at her Gifford Lectures to her death. The book was well received. John Updike commented: "There would be no need to complain of literary biographies [...] if they were all as good". The text addresses many popular questions about Murdoch, such as how Irish she was, what her politics were, etc. Though not a trained philosopher, Conradi's interest in Murdoch's achievement as a thinker is evident in the biography, and yet more so in his earlier work of literary criticism The Saint and the Artist: A Study of Iris Murdoch's Works (Macmillan 1986, HarperCollins 2001). He also recalled his personal encounters with Murdoch in Going Buddhist: Panic and Emptiness, the Buddha and Me. (Short Books, 2005). Conradi's archive of material on Murdoch, together with Iris Murdoch's Oxford library, is held at Kingston University.
An account of Murdoch's life with a different ambition is given by A. N. Wilson in his 2003 book Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her. The work was described by Galen Strawson in The Guardian as "mischievously revelatory" and labelled by Wilson himself as an "anti-biography". Wilson eschews objectivity, but is careful to stress his affection for his subject. Wilson remarks that Murdoch "had clearly been one of those delightful young women... who was prepared to go to bed with almost anyone". While Murdoch's thought is an inspiration for Conradi, Wilson treats Murdoch's philosophical work as at best a distraction. In a BBC Radio 4 discussion of Murdoch and her work in 2009, Wilson stated his opinion, with which he acknowledged that "no doctor would agree", that Murdoch's struggle to complete her late philosophical book, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, reduced her to despair and precipitated her into Alzheimer's.
David Morgan met Iris Murdoch in 1964, when he was a student at the Royal College of Art. His 2010 memoir With Love and Rage: A Friendship with Iris Murdoch, describes their lifelong friendship.
John Bayley wrote two memoirs of his life with Iris Murdoch. Iris: A Memoir was published in the United Kingdom in 1998, shortly before her death. The American edition, which was published in 1999, was called Elegy for Iris. A sequel entitled Iris and Her Friends was published in 1999, after her death. Murdoch was portrayed by Kate Winslet and Judi Dench in Richard Eyre's film Iris (2001), based on Bayley's memories of his wife as she developed Alzheimer's disease.
BBC Radio 4 broadcast in 2015 an "Iris Murdoch season" with several memoirs by people who knew her, and dramatizations of her novels.