“Legislating Morality” by Dr. Christopher Wolfe


Photo by Hope Brusstar

Prof. Chris Surprenant (left) sits with Prof. Christopher Wolfe before Thursday’s Honors Program talk. Wolfe visited campus last week to continue a conversation on morality and what a government’s role is in regulating it.

Demi Guillory, Reporter

“Should we legislate morality?”

This is the question Dr. Christopher Wolfe proposed in his hour-long lecture last Thursday. Wolfe, a professor of politics at the University of Dallas, visited the UNO campus to lend his political expertise in exploring the answers to this question and the nature surrounding laws in general.

“As I think about the world that you guys live in, I’m not sure that that question, in a way, even makes sense to a lot of people,” Wolfe began. Throughout the lecture, he referenced a paper he wrote in his earlier years answering this same question. The idea of legislating morality was “readily understandable” and a “burning” issue most people talked about then, he explained.

Before delving completely into his question, Wolfe offered a brief look at the background of government operations through different historical periods. In the ancient times of Plato and Aristotle, government was generally positively perceived among society. It was seen as an institution that “aimed for the common good,” Wolfe said, which included “everything that was good for human beings, every kind of human excellence.” The role of the government was to “foster a kind of human excellence among the citizens,” as he described.

Today, the influence of government and politics on human character and excellence isn’t as prevalent. Wolfe credits “trans-political institutions” like the church as factors in this global shift. He also credits the political philosopher John Locke, who he said had a particular impact on America and its “fundamental” shift in people’s views concerning the idea of the government’s role. During Locke’s time, “The idea of what government should do narrows dramatically,” Wolfe said.

Locke strongly believed in preserving the rights of life, liberty, and property above shaping people into excellent human beings. “But, as Wolfe continued, “at the same time, Locke and the early liberals never thought you could get away from some concern of human character, human virtue.”

Most Americans don’t think about killing, robbing, or sexually assaulting other people. Wolfe rhetorically asked his audience why — “is it because we fear that if we do that, we’ll be thrown in jail? For some people. …I hope the reason you’re not killing other people is not because you fear getting thrown in jail, but because you think it’s bad to kill other people.”

A society that depended on governmental reinforcement to prevent others from doing morally wrong things would not be very efficient, Wolfe stated. If force from the government was the only thing keeping people from committing criminal acts, “do you know what kind of police state you would have to have to accomplish that?” he asked. “The government would have to have cameras everywhere to make sure that they could enforce these laws,” he went on.

To offer one answer to his question, Wolfe cited the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, author of “On Liberty.” “You may have read it; if you haven’t, don’t worry, it’s in your DNA,” said Wolfe.

Mill believed humans are born with virtues that are completely independent from political influences. And with this belief, as Wolfe explained, “the government shouldn’t have any interest in people’s character.”

Wolfe spent the remainder of the hour presenting multiple examples to support Mill’s belief and ultimate answer to his question — government has no place in molding the character of most individuals. “What our society actually rests on,” Wolfe said, “is the fact that you and I, and the vast majority of people, are willing to respect other people’s rights because we think it’s the right thing to do.”

This was the third lecture of the spring semester in a series of talks hosted by the UNO Honors Program, funded in part by the Student Government Association. Wolfe, also a published author and editor, concluded with a question-and-answer session with the approximately 20 students present.