My Ethics: In politics, ethics matter more than issues
The author says that perceptions of Mitt Romney's and Barack Obama's characters matter more to voters than the issues.
July 7th, 2012
08:00 PM ET

My Ethics: In politics, ethics matter more than issues

Editor's Note: Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D., is director of Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

By Paul Root Wolpe, Special to CNN

Every four years, we go through a long and tortuous process of winnowing down a field of candidates to the two that are presumably best suited to lead us. We make our decision by focusing on two things: the candidates’ position on issues and their character.

We seem to spend the bulk of our time on the issues, debating endlessly the details of a candidate’s policies on immigration, health care, foreign affairs or the economy.

Yet the deciding factor, the one that tips the undecided voter, is perception of a leader’s character. We talk about character far less but it weighs upon us far more.

Every age believes it has a deficit of great leaders, and ours is no exception. We are convinced that we lack the caliber of leaders from our past, and it does not help to see the dispiriting parade of sex scandals and financial misbehavior that confronts us in the media almost every day.

At the same time, there has never been more attention focused on teaching about leadership.

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Amazon lists almost 2,000 books on leadership that have been released just in the last 90 days. Leadership programs abound in colleges and universities, and even elementary school children are taught leadership skills.

True leadership takes many qualities, which the leadership books are happy to list for you: mastery of skills, vision, knowing people, being a good listener, transparency, accountability and so on.

But what has emerged more and more in the literature on leadership is a focus on values. What makes a great leader is a strong sense of connection to their deep-set values, and a commitment to use those values as a touchstone in decision-making.

“Principled leadership,” “values-based leadership,” “ethical leadership” - the new buzzwords of leadership are about self-knowledge, the need to understand and clarify one’s beliefs, to demonstrate genuine humility, to lead with an open mind and heart.

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I teach ethics, and my first task with new students is to challenge the common view that ethics is primarily about deciding what is “right” and “wrong.”

Ethics is the expression of our deepest values, how we manifest what we believe in through our actions. Almost every action we take, except for the most trivial, reveals something about our ethical preferences.

One of the key goals of Emory University’s Center for Ethics is training students in “servant leadership.” It requires challenging them to consider and articulate their values: What do they really care about? What are they dedicated to? And how do they plan to realize the things they care about through action in the world?

All the other skills of leadership are important, too. But leadership at any level has to begin with an authentic commitment to who we are as individuals, self-knowledge of what we care about, a sense of the nature of our connection to the people and environments around us, and a decision to realize our values through action.

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Using that standard, we can begin to look at those who want to claim leadership roles – political candidates, for example – in a new light.

When we care about a candidate’s character, we are really asking, Is this person authentic? Are their positions a true reflection of their inner values, or are they politically expedient? Is a change of opinion on an issue a result of the candidate listening to others, learning and making a principled decision, or is it a response to pressure, polls and popularity?

As we look over our choices in this election year, we need to ask ourselves about who the candidates really are.

What does Mitt Romney’s flip-flop on universal health care, his management of Bain Capital and even sticking his dog on his car roof say about who Romney is as a person, as a leader?

What does President Obama’s delays on "don’t ask, don’t tell" and same-sex marriage, his alleged policy of targeted assassinations and his failure of campaign promises like closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay say about his fundamental character?

Sometimes, our European friends think we are politically naïve. They care less about a leader’s character, and more about what they call “realpolitick,” politics based on power and on practical considerations, not ideology or ethical premises.

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It is why the Italians seemed little concerned with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s sexual proclivities, or the French for former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s three marriages.

Looking over European politics in the last century or so, perhaps it is naïve to think that results are all that matter in politics.

Much of the history of 20th century Europe was written by leaders whose values were suspect, to say the least.

The policies of Chamberlain, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and others whose decisions devastated Europe were not totally surprising, given what was already known about their character when they assumed office. A leader’s policies may change, but the set of core values that generate them remains constant.

It is in the American character to care about our leader’s values. We should be proud of that.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Root Wolpe.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 2012 Election • Opinion • Politics

soundoff (621 Responses)
  1. Tell them what they want to hear and they'll vote for you

    We make our decision by focusing on one thing: "which of them is saying what we want to hear?". They have no character- they are characters: whose story changes depending on the audience.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  2. Bentham

    I think the author gives too much credit. Emotionalism trumps everything for most voters. Most voters fo not vote issues. That is correct. If they did no one would ever vote a republicon candidate into any office anywhere since they are on the wrong side of the issues top to bottom. But ethics doesn't matter that much either. It is the PERCEPTION of ethics. Who would have won on a rational examination of ethics, Clinton or Dole? Who would have won in any race with richard nixon if ethics was the question? In the bush Gore race Gore should have won all 50 states if ethics was the issue. Dito bush kerry. If ethics was the issue for voters in this race the lying pandering can't get the same answer twice mighty mitt romney would trail 80-20 in opinion polls. No. It is PERCEPTION and those perceptions are based on media images and unconscious clues that 99% of voters are completely unaware of. Mighty mitt is not even a Christian, but if you ask evangeligal right wing religionists, many of them favor romney and say he shares their faith. That is wrong. If you ask peopleabout character – ethics, they are as wrong on that as they are on who would be better to protect their livelhood or improve the schools (the answer is almost never a republicon because they start from flawed premises - government is bad, the private sector is always more efficient, laffer curves and trickle down–etc.)

    July 8, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  3. RichardSRussell

    Mitt Romney must be twice as ethical as Barack Obama, since he takes both positions on every issue.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  4. Nathan Newman

    Obama cares about people. Romney cares about RICH people.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • nvvmeac

      Obama cares about people... that will vote for him

      July 8, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  5. Marcus Wagner

    How can someone with a PhD be such a doe eyed idealist?

    July 8, 2012 at 7:17 am |
  6. Just a try

    @Topher not that anyone could get through to you but

    The gospel, first the OT is a loosely based history of the jews and as are all stories created by mankind from the perspective of the author. The NT on the otherhand, are supposdely eye witrness accounts of the co*ming of the messiah aka. jesus and his life on earth. Once the christian cult got on a roll and looked like they could get some traction and make a buck, the idea of creating a text of the 'gospels' took hold. Some of the texts were dusted off, edited and put into a compilation; that is the ones that were favourable to the myth of the jehovah figure and disparaging texts were censored or destroyed. Even the texts that made the final cut, the gospel according to whomever, have inconsistencies, they just can't seem to get the details of the tale make a lot of sense. Then of course you have the first self proclained leader of the cult just can't help himself from pontificating on how every one should see the world and lead their lives. Back in the day the sheep required some sort of hope to make sense of their cruel lives and they flocked to the church to be sheared by the priests and still do today. Let us pray that it stops right soon, but prayer NEVER works.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:15 am |
  7. Reality

    One should be voting based on rational thinking. Believing in angels, satans, bodily resurrections, atonement, and heavens of all kinds is irrational. Both candidates are guilty.

    Warren Buffett for President!!!

    July 8, 2012 at 7:12 am |
  8. Andurill

    Yes because Jesus was human oriented and not money oriented.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • Andurill

      Bah wrong article sorry. That said it is sad people like to judge others even when they have done wrong themselves so I guess to some it is more important.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:11 am |
  9. uncle tommy

    by obamas past he hides past, doesn't keep promises, waste money, will say anything for a vote, appologize for others but not accept responsiblity for his short commings and mistakes. basically i know whats good for you. obama tax is good for you but me and my family are too good for it.

    July 8, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • sqeptiq

      You are completely cut adrift from facts; what you hear on talk radio and Fox need to be "vetted," as the term goes.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  10. NClaw441

    Should it not be "...ethics matterS"? I think "ethics" is like "physics." You'd say "Physics is a field of study" and not "Physics are a difficult subject." Grammar be important also.

    July 8, 2012 at 6:44 am |
  11. BinaryTruth

    Romney's ethics are up for purchase. That's why he lies and flip flops so often.

    July 8, 2012 at 6:39 am |
  12. .

    CNN ethics: Gay gay gay gay gaygay gay gay gaygay gay gay gaygay gay gay gaygay gay gay gaygay gay gay gay PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE ECONOMY gay gay gay gaygay gay gay gaygay gay gay gaygay gay gay gaygay gay gay gay.



    July 8, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  13. Pu$$y Galore's Flying Circus

    If people are actually dumb enough to think that any politician has ethics, they should have their voting priviledges revoked.

    July 8, 2012 at 3:49 am |
    • Rush

      So you're a Romney supporter...

      July 8, 2012 at 6:37 am |
  14. Fuster

    I wouldn't vote for a guy who believes Native Indians are actually Jews and black people can become while if they stop sinning.

    July 8, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • Fuster

      Read the Book of Mormon. I guarantee it's the funniest holy book you will ever read!

      July 8, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • Fuster

      Sorry I mean Native Americans, not "Native Indians".

      July 8, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • uncle tommy

      no foster the funniest book is the k o r a n

      July 8, 2012 at 6:55 am |
    • Bentham

      Read the fist 6-10 pages of the book of mormon. You will SWEAR it is a joke written by John Cleese of Monty Python fame.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:24 am |
  15. Flamespeak

    Obama or Romney, it doesn't matter. Just another suit that will ignore the bulk of the nation to pander to small demographics and we will keep electing this people because you just have to vote for red or blue every single time.

    July 8, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • Rush

      We get it. You support Romney.

      July 8, 2012 at 6:38 am |
  16. dyslexic dog

    the upcoming election will prove two points.
    (a) that christians are believers according to convenience, and
    (b) that republican christians are republicans first and christians second

    Romney is a mormon which is a religion that, as well as co-optingsome parts and characters from the bible word for word, also contradicts and makes a mockery of so many key christian religious beliefs that it should be a bigger issue to christians than gay marriage and abortion. But ... the same way as christians always pick and choose which parts of the bible to loudly proclaim and which parts of the bible to pretend don't exist ... they will ignore all these issues and vote for Romney anyway.

    What do you think God/Jesus will think of you if you give your vote to a man who truly believes that he will one day be a God? Or a man who truly believes that Joseph Smith, a 19th century reknowned con-man, is an equal of Jesus?

    Go on christans, pretend you never read this post. Find some obscure bible quote that will justify you supporting a cult. What a joke!

    July 8, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • dyslexic dog

      Did I mention that I'm a complete idiot with no life?

      My only enjoyment is sitting in my one bedroom flat trolling hatred because it helps ease the pain of my failure.

      Sorry. It's all part of my 12 step program.

      July 8, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • NClaw441

      I don't believe supporting, or voting for, a candidate, any candidate, means one supports the candidate's faith.

      July 8, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • Geema

      Every religion is a cult. It gives an excuse for stupid actions and the hope for their fear of death. The LDS religion is just the latest one, hence it's being picked on the most. When the other "christian" faiths were emerging from the pagan faiths they were picked on.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  17. The138

    Unknown Writes:

    – Atheists boast that they more but when it boils down...

    Many Atheist are people who’ve explored religious truth in both study and practice, and have come to a conclusion that happens to differ from yours. You may want to question why you so quickly choose dismiss those who disagree with you as uninformed and antagonistic.

    – They take what they learn from others...

    Where exactly did you learn what you know, if not from others?

    – …and what they "read in religious schools" at home etc and claim to know all of it but deny the message and point of Christianity.

    It would be nice to have the market cornered on the point and message of an entire religion made up of thousands of denominations, which would appear to be intolerance of anyone who would question your beliefs, or your personal version of what Gods meaning for life is. I would suggest that pride is a topic covered throughout the old and new testament, that all of us could glean some benefit from reading.

    I’ll await your next reply, and pray, it’s not laced with thinly veiled insults and accusations of ignorance and malice, but rather in the spirit, of open and honest conversation that may lead to, enlightenment, for all of us.

    July 7, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
  18. The138

    Guarantee: An assurance of the quality of or of the length of use to be expected from a product offered for sale often with a promise of reimbursement.

    I expect the reimbursement of my soul if the Islamist's (2.5 Billion followers), Secularists (2 Billion non-believers), Hindus (1 Billion followers), Buddist's (450 Million followers), African Diasporic's (You have no clue who they are do you? 200 Million followers), and the rest of the non-Christian world (about a Billion and a half more people that will burn in hell) are right, and you, are wrong.

    Have a great day!

    July 7, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • Topher

      Hi, The138. So where exactly do you stand? What is your belief?

      July 7, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • Unknown

      Atheists have nothing to worry about so the "threats of hell" to them are fake but their comments show that..they fear death like the rest of humanity.

      July 7, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • Answer

      Wrong once again. You religious freaks love to offload your own fears onto others. Keep it to yourselves.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:31 am |
  19. Topher

    If anyone has questions about Christianity, please feel free to ask ...

    July 7, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • question

      Ask anyone but topher, it has no answers.

      July 7, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • Topher

      Jesus said I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.

      Christianity is the only religion in the world that offers forgiveness of sins and a guarantee on where you will spend eternity (whether that's Heaven or Hell.)

      July 7, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • Not so

      Actually, the Bible and Jesus are both very clear that the elect are not known on earth, and many who think they are going to heaven are actually headed to hell.

      If you want to know about Christianity, Topher, ask an atheist – we know more about your religion than you do.

      July 7, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • Topher

      "Actually, the Bible and Jesus are both very clear that the elect are not known on earth, and many who think they are going to heaven are actually headed to hell."

      True, there are many false converts and Jesus will have to say "Depart from me you who practice lawlessness," to many "Christians." But we can know if we are saved.

      "If you want to know about Christianity, Topher, ask an atheist – we know more about your religion than you do."

      So I keep being told. Yet not one has been able to tell me what the Gospel is. Want to give it a try?

      July 7, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • No Truth, Just Claims


      Quit asking for questions, when you can't 'answer' anymore you just run away...

      July 7, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Topher

      Then ask me an honest question instead of trying for a "gotcha" question.

      July 7, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • question

      You cannot even answer basic questions of doctrine.

      July 7, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Unknown

      Atheists boast that they more but when it boils down..they take what they learn from others and what they "read in religious schools" at home etc and claim to know all of it but deny the message and point of Christianity.

      July 7, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Topher, if I'm missing your point, I'm sure you'll post back.

      Matthew 4:23
      John 1:17
      John 8:31-32


      July 7, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Unknown, they were educated by the deceivers of Christ. Have no clue they were conditioned.

      The four Hidden Dynasties (called the four horns in gospel) that will precede and usher in satan as the antichrist. Educational (includes the media), Economic, Religious and Political.

      1st beast of [Revelation 13:1-10] that is ultimately controlled by the second beast of [Revelation 13:11-18]. This second beast is satan as the antichrist.

      See: Daniel 7:3 and Zechariah 1:18-21.

      The mark of the beast is what he had his minions that live among us ... condition in the students of the last 30 years minds to go against Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior (not believing God's gospel).

      The lies of satan binds and enslaves.

      Jesus' truth sets you free.


      July 7, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      There is no need for "forgiveness of sin".
      Jesus did not teach it. He taught "the kingdom is at hand".
      Salvation was grafted onto Christianity by Saul of Tarsus.
      Original sin was invented by Augustine of Hippo.
      The Garden Myth was about Chaos and Order, not disobedience.
      So sad. Christians need to invent a new marketing scheme. The old one's are debunked.

      July 7, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
    • Topher


      ... keep it up, brother.

      July 7, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      llɐq on sah ʎʞɔnq, just like your handle, you've got everything backwards.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:02 am |
  20. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    July 7, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      And TMR boy is off to the races once again, constantly posting the only 3 words he knows, page after page, with nary a whiff of evidence in support of either his ridiculous handle or ludicrous statement.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • just sayin

      Truth is, proofs have been repeatedly posted, your types tend to ignore proofs and come back with the same lame statement of " no proofs" when more proof has been given than would be available in any case in any court in this land. God bless

      July 8, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things

      July 8, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • me

      Teaching children to be compassionate loving human beings because it's the right thing to do as opposed to some threat of eternal toture is a much better approach in my view.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:41 am |
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