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. PAUL



    July 12, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  2. Deborah

    I supported Obama last time. He is definitely no leader. I'll take my chances with the republicans. Happy to leave behind hope and change. I tell my employees if Obama gets to keep his job, they will likely loose theirs.

    July 9, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      You actually tell your employees this?

      I might be wrong, but that sounds illegal. An employer cannot compel their employees to vote for fear of their jobs.

      July 9, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Wow, what a fvcking azzhole dvchenozzle boss you are!! Fvck you, dipsh!t.

      July 9, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • reMix

      So you are trying to influence their vote? Classy. and stupid

      July 9, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • Deborah

      Ok, I realize that what I said was dumb. Obama just frustrates me, but I do still admire him. No way on earth would I ever vote for a republitard and I have to apologize to my employees for trying to manipulate their decision. I didn't realize that was illegal.

      July 10, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Deborah

      And of course I realize that I'm an idiot, because this article is about ethics and by telling my employees who to vote for, I showed that I have no ethics at all!

      July 10, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • maramara

      I will always vote for Obama because he makes sense. I will also keep all my employees who vote for Mitt. You are a primitive being in a civilized society

      July 10, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  3. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    Dr. Root Wolper,

    Really? Chamberlain mentioned in the same context of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini? Expedient and ineffectual he may have been, but I don't really think it's fair to cast him in this light.

    July 9, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  4. shep

    Is Mitt Romney going to wear a top hat when he rides his magical prancing horsey in the Olympics??

    July 9, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Shep.

      I wish I hadn't said that. The devil made me do it. I hear voices in my head and they tell me to do bad things!

      July 9, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  5. .

    It's true, I am a Mormon propagandist that is paid by my Church to lie to people about Obama and any other symbol of freedom. If we can get Romney into the White House then he will hand over the American Government to the Mormon Church, just like our White Horse Prophesy states (look that up if you don't know what I'm talking about)!

    July 9, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Who invited me?

      Do you have anything to say that isn't conspiracy theory or rhetoric just to try to stir up the pot?

      July 9, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • .

      Actually I thrive on stiring up the pot. I have Borderline Personality Disorder so I'm what laymen call a splitter. It's something we Mormons do best. A lot of mentally ill people are attracted to our church.

      July 9, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • PrimeNumber

      The Mormons have a long history of defying the Feds. That isn't always a bad thing.

      July 9, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  6. .

    Did you know that if you sell your house after 2012 you will pay a 3.8% sales tax on it? That's $3,800 on a $100,000 home, etc. When did this happen? It's in the health care bill, - and it goes into effect in 2013. Why 2013? Could it be so that it doesn’t come to light until after the 2012 elections? So, this is ‘change you can believe in’?

    Under the new health care bill all real estate transactions will be subject to a 3.8% sales tax. If you sell a $400,000 home, there will be a $15,200 tax. This bill is set to screw the retiring generation, - who often downsize their homes. Does this make your November, 2012 vote more important?

    Oh, you weren't aware that this was in the ObamaCare bill? Guess what; you aren't alone! There are more than a few members of Congress that weren't aware of it either.

    July 9, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Can you cite your source for this information, please?

      July 9, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • nomorepropaganda

      Did you know that anyone can spout any kind of "so called fact" on here without providing proof or references? Of course, only ignorant sheeple will believe anything they are told. This so called "." that is so silly that it can't think up a username, ought to keep trolling on Faux news and stay away from networks that believe in real freedom.

      July 9, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • .

      You can check this out for yourself at:


      July 9, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What he said.

      July 9, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You moron. That's not a neutral source. Either cite one that is neutral and factual, or shut up and go home.

      July 9, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      Here's the scoop on this:


      July 9, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • nomorepropaganda

      Well DUH "." you got the propaganda from a GOP site! Geesh, why didn't you say so in the first place, we would have believed you right away, without question! NOT! LOL! Seriously you think we're going to believe anymore GOP propaganda with how screwed up this country has become because of them? You are funny!

      July 9, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • nomorepropaganda

      Thank you "voice of reason." Good to know there are still honest people in the world. Now "." go back to your mormon church and whine at your testimony meeting how you were proven wrong (something mormons can't stand) and leave the land of freedom.

      July 9, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      And another:


      July 9, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • What IF

      Thanks VOR,

      Here's a quote from that site for those who don't/won't follow the link:

      "The vast majority of those who sell their homes won’t pay a dime. The tax will fall only on net investment income of a high-income few. Even for them, it’s not a “sales tax” on every dollar of the selling price of a home, but a tax on the profit. Furthermore, for a principal residence, only the amount of profit that exceeds $250,000 (or $500,000 in the case of a couple) will be taxed."

      I wonder, though, for elderly couples who bought their homes way back in the 1950s or 60s for what is now a pittance and one dies, the surviving spouse will have a tax double the figure they would have paid if they sold while the other one was alive. Example: couple bought home in 1965 for $20,000 and it's worth $300,000 now... sell it while both are alive and the tax on profit is zero, but sell after one dies and it is $8740. Is this going to result in the elderly selling too soon?

      July 9, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • BRC

      @What IF,
      I'm sure there will be LOTS of in depth rules and regulations, but in simplest terms/math of your example:
      Sells for 300,000 minus the initial investment = 280,000 – Individual exception 250,000= 30,000*tax .038= 1140 dollars.

      Yes, it is unfortunate for the person has a tax on something because their spouse is gone (if that's how the rule ends up working), but 1100 dollars when you just made 280,000 is not an undo hardship. Whether or not taxing these sales is the right answer, I think we can agree that that amount of money is not going to ruin anyone's life.

      July 9, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • What IF


      Yes, you are correct on the figures. Thank you for taking the time to do that.

      And yes, I guess we'll just have to wait and see how it all shakes down and hope that it works out equitably for all. Keeping an eye out for inequities can't hurt, though.

      July 9, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • BRC

      @What IF,
      I agree completely, trying to keep the government honest is ALWAYS a worthwhile effort.

      July 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • .

      Actually, I don't mind being proven wrong. I am interested in the truth. I have a family member who feeds me a lot of Tea Party propganda which I usually ignore, but this one sounded legit. Thank-you for the correction.

      July 9, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  7. shep

    Is America ready for a cult member who wears a magical diaper to keep him safe? Maybe a magic jockstrap, but a magical diaper?? And will he bring his Mormon harem with him to the White House? First ladies??

    July 9, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • .

      Shep is the one who wears a diaper. 🙂

      July 9, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • nomorepropaganda

      . is the one that NEEDS to wear a diaper...

      July 9, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  8. TomPaine32

    If character counts, then Romney should not be the Republican nominee. Even by the standards of politicians (who have been known to twist a fact or two) Romney stands out in that he cynically lies about just about everything. If truth ever comes out of his mouth it is purely by accident.

    July 9, 2012 at 5:42 am |
    • setnommarih

      We only have one world renown liar and that is Emperor Barack Hussein Obama and he is the one that counts.

      July 9, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      can you explain again how an 'etch-a-sketch' candidacy conforms with ethical integrity?

      July 9, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  9. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 9, 2012 at 4:20 am |
    • vp

      We have proven that ethics are not involved in Politics.

      PRETENDING to be ethical while you are fleecing the populous is rampant.

      July 9, 2012 at 6:35 am |
    • Robert

      It's a sad commentary that a believer in a faith that has murdered so very many in god's name is so afraid of those that don't follow his beliefs that he feels the need to assault them in every single thread.
      What a waste of time, what a waste of a life.

      July 9, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      July 9, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  10. Anne

    Remember Teddy Roosevelt. He WAS fat(something which should have little bearing on a person's worth as president.) At least not as much as people today seem to think. He was quite successful. He was a Republican I might add. My point is, yes, it's better to be average weight. But being heavy does NOT automatically preclude you from being an effective leader.

    July 9, 2012 at 3:48 am |
  11. 0rangeW3dge

    "After three and a half disappointing years in office, President Obama and his liberal allies are desperate to divert attention from his broken promises and failed record,"

    Let's all sing along ~~~~~~ C'mon, you know the words:

    "After three and a half disappointing years in office, President Obama and his liberal allies are desperate to divert attention from his broken promises and failed record,"

    July 9, 2012 at 3:47 am |
    • shep

      6500 dead soldiers in Iraq because the entire Bush administration lied about WMDs. Why don't you go sing in the garage with the car on and the door down. America thanks you.

      July 9, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  12. chuck wagon

    I think there should be more candidates running without excessive attention to political party. With only two candidates running as in this year I also feel if neither one can capture 70% of the votes neither one should obtain the office and we should have another election with newly running candidates. IMHO. One last thing – I still don't trust a politician!

    July 9, 2012 at 3:20 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Given that the norm with essentially only two candidates results in a margin of about 52% v. 48% in what universe do you imagine that one of many candidates could reach 70%, let alone a majority?

      In any case, the electoral college needs to be addressed first. It doesn't need to be eliminated, but all states should have votes proportionally allocated – no winner takes all!

      July 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  13. bp

    Mr. Wolpe's comments are charming in their refusal to recognize how American politics has changed.

    Who cares about an elected official's ethics when voters no longer want such to use their judgment or knowledge, but only to vote according to what the voters want? If you take a pledge to never vote for a tax increase (for instance), then your character doesn't matter in the least when it comes to tax issues, only how you vote. People don't want leaders any more, they want officeholders who follow their wishes in everything, every time.

    July 9, 2012 at 2:00 am |
    • Really

      Wanting a leader is unAmerican. Elected officials are supposed to be representatives, not leaders. That's how the country was intentionally constituted.

      July 9, 2012 at 2:18 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      What "people" (excepting perhaps fringe groups like TeaPartiers and extortionists like Grover Norquist) want office holders who follow their wishes (whatever they are) in everything?

      Grover Norquists self-appointed crusade to hold democracy hostage would be irrelevant if Rebublican representatives who bought into his extortion had a spine and demonstrated the ethical leadership discribed in the article.

      I agree that these kind of approaches mitigate the ability of a representative to demonstrate leadership. It doesn't mean that the whole electorate wants this kind of behavior in our elected officials.

      July 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  14. JusticeforAll

    Justice for Wendy Fisher! No Justice; No peace

    July 8, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • Whaddaver

      Justice for Lindsay Lohan!

      No freedom, no vodka!

      July 9, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  15. Kevin

    The author draws a pretty harsh distinction between Europeans, who according to him care only about Realpolitik, and Americans who scrutinize ethics. Some Americans scrutinize the individual ethics of candidates, but they don't seem to scrutinize the ethics of US policy when it comes to the use of our military and environmental policy. Ethics is important to me as a voter, but I will look at the big picture before I look at someone's personal life. And I think these "big picture" policy issues are ethical issues, indeed the most important ethical issues. That doesn't mean that personal life or ethics as a leader is inconsequential, but shouldn't it be second to policy.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
  16. deano

    Richard "Spud" Tater for Pres. Can't get any more ethical than that.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
  17. Reality

    From p.11;

    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, agnostic/atheist for President!!!

    Bill Gates, agnostic/atheist for Vice-President!!!!

    Write-in their names on your ballot.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Spoken like a true Talmud thumper. Woe to you realitynot. Matthew 23 tells how you are Jesus Christ's enemy.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • Oh Hell No!

      Fuck that!!!

      Gates was a ruthless SOB when he was in charge.

      Ultra-rich guys who are used to being totalitarian dictators of their world are not good candidates for political office.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      And the infallible gospel of Clortho (4:35-7) tells you how you are Jesus' dental hygenist: "You will perish in flames, subcreature! Gozer will destroy you and your kind! Wait for the sign. Then all prisoners will be released!"

      July 8, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Phony heavensent, your mom doesn't even call you.

      July 9, 2012 at 1:20 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Absolutely true, she doesn't call. Dead people are funny that way.

      July 9, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • jwt

      It is very hard to tell the real hs apart from the imposter hs.

      July 9, 2012 at 5:17 am |
    • Robert

      True JWS, one is sarcastic, the other base and vicious.
      If there were a god he would be sorely ashamed of his followers.

      July 9, 2012 at 7:17 am |
  18. dd

    The mainstream news media has become the bully pulpit. The MSM encourages sensationalism, lies, innuendo ... anything to polarize and create hate or fear. Politicians need the MSM to get reelected. We now have the two lowest ethical professions running the country. It may be time to shutdown the MSM – cancel the paper and turn the channel, boycott the advertisers and overturn the news trucks.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
    • shep

      Agreed. Like the British arresting dozens of Fox Fake News employees. We should do the same thing here. a Sean Hannity perp walk in handcuffs in broad daylight would be a nice start.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  19. shep

    If Jesus Christ appeared here today, he would not be allowed in a Mormon temple. Why? Because he would need a "Temple Recommend" Jesus couldn't enter a temple. You don't need to make things up about the Mormon church. They are flat out unbelievable.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • blessedgeek

      Yes, Jesus would not be able to enter a WH ball, Fort Knox or observe a session in China'a People's Congress. Otherwise, there would be a stampede if every Jesus, Mark or Mary wanted to visit those places uninvited. Of course Jesus Mercado or Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Cortez would need an invitation – to be fair to everyone wanting to visit and to verify their eligibility.

      July 9, 2012 at 4:07 am |
    • ME II

      If Jesus showed up, couldn't He just "reveal" Himself to the "President of the Church" or the guy/gal checking for "recommends"?

      Then again, I'd think Him riding an Invisible Pink Unicorn would be a dead give away.

      In the world of make-believe everything is reasonable.

      July 9, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  20. n8263

    Below is a great video of Bill Maher discussing Christian morality. Funny and to the point.


    July 8, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Matthew 27:20 Bill.

      July 9, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • tallulah13

      Great clip, n8263. It's spot on. No wonder christians hate Bill Maher - He calls them on their hypocrisy.

      July 9, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Tallulah, Bill is just a talking head for those that hate Jesus.

      July 10, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Of course Tallulah, the rest of my post was prevented from being posted. Some day, you'll figure it out.

      July 10, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
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About this blog

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