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. just sayin

    Morons, I mean mormons believe that they will become gods. They have temple rituals that involve death threats to themselves and others. They worship a prophet (Joseph Smith) that was a pedophile...lets talk a but ethics now....

    July 8, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Leeroy

      Of course, you couldn't be further from the truth. But if you would like to speak of Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, let's talk about Obama's following Rev. Wright for 15 years and then dumping him when his offensive unamerican beliefs were exposed to the world. Talk about the ultimate flip-flopper to turn on his own religion . . . if infact he trully did turn on it. I have my doubts. Al Qaeda said they wanted to bankrupt our country. It appears we're headed in that direction extremely fast under Obama's leadership. So, you go ahead and make up stuff about Romney's Church. I'll let Obama's religion, or lack thereof, stand on it's own.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • shep

      If Mitt Romney would apologize for being in a cult masquerading as a religion, he would have my vote.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things. See it change things inside out at prolapsed.net.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • just sayin

      Just a warning...typical of Christians...the site that Atheism is telling people to go to is a p orn site. Obviously Christianity will hide under any disgusting disguise!

      July 8, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • just a warning...just sayin, atheism is not healthy, unknown, etc etc, is the same stupid tool

      posting his 4th-rate troll drivel
      over and over again
      under twenty different names..........
      the tool even responds to himself,
      he finds this amusing............
      ignore the tool.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Hark!

      just sayin

      "Just a warning..*.typical of Christians*...the site that Atheism is telling people to go to is a p orn site. Obviously Christianity will hide under any disgusting disguise!"

      And under which disguise DO YOU hide, you snake in human form?

      July 8, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  3. abbydelabbey

    Ethics? Politics? An oxymoron.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  4. Sam Yaza

    still we shouldn't focused on ethic lets focus on what they will do and wont will ether of them stop the war no will ether of them support taxing there owners more no by that i mean the 1 percent, so this election ever one vote non of the above,.. or Adam West


    July 8, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      opps i meant this one


      July 8, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      Yeah, I know, I listen to shit music.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      take that back E 6 is greater then your God
      then again so is a ham and cheese sandwich

      July 9, 2012 at 12:10 am |
  5. dale

    If charactir matters, explain to me GWB realection. What matters is money.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  6. mikeinmn

    Sorry dude, but ethics has had nothing to do in elections since at least 2000. Don't know where you're gettin' your koolaid.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Leeroy

      Unfortunately, based on the last election, you're probably right. 🙁

      July 8, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • qqqqqjim

      Spot on. I wonder how this guy would explain electing Richard Nixon twice, who, as most would agree, had no ethics. Or even LBJ, who never met a soldier he cared about and stole his first election. Sorry, but there are no ethics in politics!

      July 8, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  7. Leeroy

    I love this story and support the idea of focussing on core ethical values all good religions of the world posess and can agree on. I find it telling that the auther decided to make the comparisons of Romney's and Obama's questionable ethics. It's clear, that when he had to list Romney's dog, Seabus, getting sick on the car, he was really stretching to find something on Romney. Yet, he neglecting to mention Obama's sleeping around prior to marriage, recreational illegal drug usage, protests, support of mur dering unborn babies, support of sin (same secks relations), continued out of control spending, etc. Another CNN story with a slanted bias.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      there's nothing wrong with this "Obama's sleeping around prior to marriage, recreational illegal drug usage," and i guess your saying supporting pro choice is bad,.. you know i for one think killing unborns in wrong to but you so is pushing my morality on others. also about the sin thing what sin to you is not sin to others for instants its a sin in Christianity to worship another god not mine i only have a few sin,.. Hate and anything that kills you like not eating or sleeping and jumping off a cliff

      July 8, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • Leeroy

      Sam Yaza, please tell us what religion supports sleeping around and taking illegal drugs.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      wiccan, Nocttice/lunistian (followers of Lilith), Paganism, neo-Paganism, Hinduism, Animism/shamanism, Christianity (the substance part), Aztecan/Mayan/Incan, sun-dance, Shinto (proto-Ko-Shinto), Bushman, ect.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      that s3x before marriage not adultery, for adultery drop of Hinduism(without consent), sun-dance(without consent), Shinto (married even after death, and in next life, even if your mate is reincarnated as the same s3x, but still ok to sleep-around until marriage ceremony)

      July 8, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Leeroy

      Thank you Sam Yaza. After reading your other posts, I understand you much better now. BTW, which religion do you associate with most? Just curious. It seems that most of us associate ourselves with one religion or another . . . even when some have not attended any function of that religion in decades. Funny how that is. 🙂

      July 8, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      my goddess in order from greatest to lease
      1. Amaterasu (sustainer)
      2. Gaia aka Mem Alph aka Cybele (creator)
      3. Lilith aka Sophia aka the tree of knowledge (mother)
      4. Athena aka Samyaza aka Lucifer aka Minerva (law)
      5. Danu the waters of life (heritage)

      to answer your question Proto-ko-shinto, the Ainu shinto

      July 8, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • random

      But it was kind of the author not to mention Romney's two biggest sins: greed and hatred.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • Leeroy

      random, that's because they do not exist.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  8. lew93920

    Articles like this that describe why voters make decisions seem so silly to me when it’s clear the primary motivation and strategy for Republicans to remove Obama is to keep taxes from rising. Criticizing Obama’s performance in some category like jobs, health care or ethics is simply a useful way to try to disqualify the current Democratic candidate. The GOP's hope is to find something that sticks and enables the only other choice, their candidate, to win. What matters is the fact that Romney has said he won’t raise taxes which is the solution ubiquitously offered by Republicans these days to help the economy, as evidenced by the Grover Norquist pledge which most all of them sign. What’s incredible to me is why the mass of the electorate, who can see their standard of living continuously dropping in virtually every important area when compared to other countries continue to support the Republicans, who so obviously owe their primary allegiance to the 1% who control most of the wealth and fund their campaigns through the now unbridled Super PACs. You’ve got to give it to the GOP, they have figured out how to convince the masses to give more to the wealthy in hopes of creating domestic jobs, while in fact so many of them invest overseas to move jobs to countries where poor folks work for virtually nothing under repressive regimes. A small minority of the wealthy in the US and abroad can now throw as much money at this goal as they want. Oh well, it’s hard to argue with such success and I expect the GOP will win big in November.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Leeroy

      Please. Is that the best you can do? Pick on the Global Marketplace and doing business globally? I suppose you would like the US to stay within our boarders and care only for ourselves and neglect the rest of the world? Where are your ethics? This story is about ethics written by an ethics professor and I believe you would have just failed his class. 🙂

      July 8, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • lew93920

      Why would I possibly care about passing this person’s class? What a strange response. I care about the unethical activity of not supporting the country where you live by avoiding taxes at all costs and moving investments offshore to the detriment of the population that supports the infrastructure and society where the GOP live. That’s the only ethical issue relevant to me.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • Leeroy

      lew93920, sounds like diversified investing; something most investment counselors recommend. Nothing illegal about that. Granted, the immoral and/or unethical aspects are a judgement call. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  9. CBR

    It is amazing how we can get away from the topic of the story. Both men have admirable qualities. We cannot possibly know everything about them including their values. The media does give impressions and others people do, too. Both men have made mistakes in their lifetime.

    Mr. Romney's healthcare has caused problems in MA. The cost overrun for one thing. People are working to make this work and towns and cities are changing benefits, etc. to meet the new rules.

    Truth be told the Lt Governor of the MA under Romney did most of the work to get this healthcare passed. She worked hard to do so. While Mr. Romney was out of state running for President Kerry Healey was in MA governing. The governorship was just a stepping stone. He came back to MA after the Olympics, ran for Governor and two years later he was already thinking of running for President. He served only one term as well.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  10. Guest

    "Alleged policy of targeted assassinations"? There's nothing alleged about it. It's been publicly acknowledged by high-ranking officials on more than one occasion. Including the fact that the targets are sometimes US citizens.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  11. William Nettie

    It is frustrating the GOP calls itself the party of god! Who else related to the "god" term? Oh yes the Nazis and the KKK!
    Repubs are about unregulated corporations and cheap labor. That is all. What do the repubs think about a living wage
    and health care? It is not part of their agenda. Only, unregulated corporations and cheap labor. The party of god, omg!
    If Romney gets in office our country is screwed!

    July 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Dnc

      I try not to take advice from someone who doesn't have a problem with a president geting a blooooow jooooob in the Oval Office, or any other moral infraction, as long as it's a Democrat, but screams bloody murder when it's a Republican! Can you say Hypocrite?

      July 8, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  12. Jay

    Mitt Romney is intelligent, and has been very successful in most of his private sector businesses. He is a gentleman, and is very modest about his achievements unlike Obama who is very egotistical. Yes, Romney had a HC law in MA, but it was on a state level and not one size fits all, like the the National HC law.He did not take from Medicare funds and there were not 22 hidden taxes that will increase the cost of Health care for everyone. Taxes will apply gradually in Obamacare, however the taxes are on Medical equipment, some hospitals, and a variety of prescription drugs. All of these taxes will increase cost for every group, but most of all the middle class. Also there is a Doctor shortage, and many that accept Medicare and Medicare will no longer accept those patients You do not always get to keep your Dr. as promised. Obamcare is a reflection on how Obama mislead the people. Also to imply that Romneycare is like Obamacare is incorrect.
    When Romneycare was passed MA had a balance budget unlike our National debt of 15 trillion.When looking at one's character we must look at honesty at the top of the list. I know Obama is very charming, but how long can one get by on charm, especially when our Country is going backwards, and in a recession.
    You can listen to Obama's ads, about Bain but The Washington Post has retracted the story as false, so has Fact Check.
    We need a President with good character and good business experience and in my opinion would be Romney.

    July 8, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • TKO

      Sorry, i will step on some toes here, but FactCheck has gotten it wrong, or is at least off-kilter here. Bain capital's actions did a lot of damage to a lot of people in this country, all in the name of the bottom line. That is the fact–FactCheck is missing the point of the argument. Romney has amassed great wealth on the backs of working people who suffered under his actions. That is immoral.

      July 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Leeroy

      TKO, it would have been immoral if Romney hadn't stepped in and helped the 80% of the companies he and Bain helped. 80% success rate is pretty darn good and that doesn't happen by accident. 80% of the people were served well by Bain and Romney. The liberals seem to want to forget that fact. And that Bain was invited to take a look at these companies. Bain and Romney didn't force their way in and force their ideas and options on them.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Obama Mama

      I do not think you understand the business that Mitt Romney was in. In some instances he borrowed money from a bank, so much that the bank went belly up. He consolidated and closed many causing jobs to be lost. I do not find that to be intelligent. Just a bottom feeder.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Leeroy

      Obama Mama, I don't expect you to change your views based upon the name you've given yourself, but just so you know, Bain came to the company I work for, invited, and spent a great deal of time and effort analyzing us and what we do. Some were let go with a great severence package, for various reasons. However, we may have hired more then were let go. And we are now leaner and smarter and doing quite well following the plan that Bain helped us formulate. My point is that that is my first hand experience with Bain. It has been very favorable and very professional. There was nothing "bottom feeding" about it.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
  13. Sam Yaza

    i have news for all you Christians if your a republican that an oxymoron

    Jesus = king of kings,..

    Republican = anti-king

    which is why Jefferson one of the founders of the republic was an Anti christian

    July 8, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • jimbo

      wow, did yoiu think that up all by yourself? get a clue dude

      July 8, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Dnc

      I do try not to take advice from someone who doesn't have a problem with a president geting a blooooow jooooob in the Oval Office, or any other moral infraction, as long as it's a Democrat, but screams bloody murder when it's a Republican! Can you say Hypocrite??

      July 8, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      no that a fact learn history with how many quotes i put in about Jefferson you should know by now,... when Jefferson took office the nations Christians were worried that the would be force underground, being a republican is at odds with Christianity
      Christ was a liberal
      Open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.
      that was Christ all the way
      a republican believes there is no such thing a "Divine right" and the people should control there leaders,. we did not vote in God and we have no control over him he is our lord by "divine right"

      its an oxymoron

      July 8, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • S1N

      As an atheist, I feel obligated to inform the public that the vast majority of us are NOT as stupid as the original poster.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      well DNC i have no problem with any president getting a bl0w job,.. i'm all about Morality is not law ethics communities should not talk about what what two people do in the bedroom its between the persons involved in the relationships

      July 8, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      well S1N as a Pagan i feel obligated to say,... i'm a polytheist

      July 8, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • Sergio Roa

      He was a deistic....

      July 8, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      yes a Deist and an anti-christian they don't conceal each-other out in fact some Druze are anti-Abraham Deism can border these realms its just the belief that there is one god the creator, its neither male or female and has not writings its much like secular Deism there is one god and we all call him/her by different names

      belief in a creator and do not associate with Religion its common ideal among deist

      July 8, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  14. stevenabb

    When Bill Clinton was running for president I remember the battle cry was "character does not matter in a leader" Oh... now that Odumbo is on the ropes suddently character does matter... How Pathetic!

    July 8, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • TKO

      There was no such battle cry, simply the observation that Clinton was not alone in showing character flaws, and that what is important are character flaws that lead to destructive results, and the more destructive, the more morally repugnant. As the bumper sticker says, When "Clinton lied no one died." Of course when Republican GW Bush lied hundreds of thousands died. Which is the greater crime?

      July 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  15. n8263

    Good video of Bill Maher on Christian values.


    July 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • mark

      One can say the exact same thing about Republicans. They're caught in more scandals then the Democrats are.

      July 8, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  16. Tom in San Diego

    Isn't Democrat and Ethical an "oxymoron"? For you dummies look up "oxymoron" on dictionary dot com.

    July 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Seriously? So then aren't "republican" and "compassionate" oxymoron?

      July 8, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • TKO

      No, professor, Democrat and ethical is not an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a single phrase that is internally contradictory, like "an ethical Repuplican."

      July 8, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  17. Really?

    Perhaps not.

    July 8, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  18. calvin

    fearless freep if you still think that it only the GOP who has mess up i feel sorry for you. VOTE THEM ALL OUT AND INPEACH 9 JUDES WHO SAT ON THE S C.

    July 8, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  19. dug

    Politicians do not have ethics and their views on issues are completely controlled by the Corporations who donate to them. If they differ in opinion, it is only because rival corporations are lobbying them. This was an utterly ridiculous piece of propaganda. Fire the author of it.

    July 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  20. Fearless Freep

    I will take a Democrat, a Liberal, and an athiest any day of the week,
    and twice on Sunday.

    You Republicans, back to the drawing board.
    You are toast in November.
    Put your big boy pants on and suck it up.
    Your party is dead.

    July 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Really?

      Like the 2010 mid term?

      You may recall, it was a referendum on Obamacare.

      How'd it work for ya, binky?

      Methinks you're putting the bull before the cart.

      July 8, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Fearless Freep

      Good point. Maybe I'm not that smart.

      July 8, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Tom in San Diego

      Fearless, better to be silent and thought stupid, than open your mouth and remove all doubt.

      July 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • TKO

      Funny how you Baggers always rag on the press for distortion, but are willing to accept its half-baked opinions as fact when it suits you–2010 was not a referendum on Obamacare, it was a repeat of what has happened in nearly every election in the past 50 years–a shift in Congress after a presidential election–read some history, guys, before you open your mouths.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Dnc

      Hmm.... I try not to take advice from someone who doesn't have a problem with a president geting a blooooow jooooob in the Oval Office, or any other moral infraction, as long as it's a Democrat, but screams bloody murder when it's a Republican! Can you say Hypocrite?

      July 8, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • wasnt funny or intelligent the other times you posted that


      July 8, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
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