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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. deano

    Look up the term oxymoron and the first example would be "ethical politician", with pictures of the past 4 presidents as proof. These guys are only ethical in their campaign promises,not in the actual office. They must be all like the Batman bad guy Two-Face......the side you see during the election year is a whole lot better looking than the one we generally end up with.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  2. Jorge Sedano

    At the heart of this the writer is trying to tell us that its ok to vote for a black guy..this is really just a well written racists rant...

    July 8, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • VanillaVanilla

      Huh? did we read the same article? Wow. that's a stretch.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  3. Free Man in the Republic of Texas

    "I" will cut the deficit in half
    "I" will close GITMO
    "I" will go line by line through the budget and cut
    If you make less than $250,000 NO new taxes... NOT one dime
    LOL !!! LOL !!!!!! LOL !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    July 8, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      It took 4 years and he laid a few eggs. Give him 4 more to scramble those eggs

      July 8, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • deano

      According to him and his supporters, those would be golden eggs.....sanctioned by the government of course.
      The golden eggs are scrambled in 2014, when the health care law takes full effect.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • mike

      The president alone can't get anything done if the Senate and the House don't pass them. Don't be a rube!

      July 8, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      What new taxes have you paid? I got a tax cut from Obama as did virtually every working American.

      July 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  4. john the guy not the baptist

    So what if an ethical President is elected, of either party, it is equivilant to having an ethical pope? You have an ethical guy at the head of the system, meanwhile the representatives and senators are bought and sold by the corporations and lobbyists like any other commodity. The pope pontificates, while turning a blind eye to the corruption and crimes going on around him; this headline appeared in the business news...Shh....Vatican gets a report card on financial transparency, but it is secret. What a joke. The whole culture has to cnange, the leader can set an example, but they all have to buy in or it won't work.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • floridamom1

      I agree. That is why it is important to elect into office only those politicians who you feel are the most ethical.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  5. lhayes

    Unfortunately, much of what we think we know about the character of our "leaders" is shaped by the media, which in many instances seem to focus on silliness and speculation. Finding objective, balanced coverage becomes harder and harder. Can anyone point me to some sources that don't waste electronic ink on politicians using "bad" words and so-called celebrities?

    July 8, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  6. steve

    After reading this editorial I'm not sure of which section it belongs in, Religious or Political. Ethics are something I find very important in anyone I vote for, but the fact is you can not get real, or true information from any media source. I not only look up Fact Check, but I also look up individual's records of accomplishment of failure. For all the bashing Romney is taking in the left wing media, I find little to no facts to back up anything unethical. As for obama, he was never vetted by the press, and his failures are so enormous that anyone with Internet service can verify them. I am sure obama the man is a nice guy, and appears to be a great family man, but he has proven he's not Presidential material. I will go with the Facts, not the press.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • lhayes

      Yeah, like the internet is a great resource for reliable verification of anything.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • jnpa

      I am a little confused by your comment. You say that Romney has done nothing unethical, but the President has had enormous failures. Are those failures you speak of "unethical?" Please share these enormous, unethical failures. It sounds like you are comparing apples and oranges.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  7. Woody

    It seems it is the same old questions and the same old answers and when no one has an answer all the politicians can do is throw a man written book at it . And that book is the bible ! When will people realize in the last 50 years plus very little has changed outside of high tec and no politician that I know of created it . Its the internets stupid !

    July 8, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  8. PaulC

    Well, we elected George W. twice so I guess the American voter sees some value in Romney but you should really look at what he has said and done to see that he will really complete the removal of the middle class.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • BD70

      I didn't elect Bush but I will say he at least had more character than Romney. In other words he was someone you could like even if you didn't like his policies.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • hopeandcringe

      how has Obama looked out for the middle class with High unemployment? food stamps and hand outs are not only weaken families and make them dependent on the gov. Like Europe.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • floridamom1

      You don't like Romney because you think you know who he is. But who he is has been delivered to you by snippets of information from the press without any real look into his character. While all the time we have been given a wonderful glimpse into the life of the president and how wonderful he is. I suggest that you try to find out who Romney really is before you make that opinion.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • mike

      Don't include me in your Bush election fiasco.The red necks who bought the fear of their guns being took away elected Bush. NOBODY is going to take your guns away so vote for the man who will be best for the country not out of the fear that is pushed.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  9. mayr

    if this is true, then Obama should win hands down! Romney has no character, no firm belief we can get behind. He changes his position as often as most people change their underwear. Obama is steady, consistent, and strong. Ask yourself this, are YOU better off now than just a couple of years ago? if so, then Obama is the one to vote for. Romney will take us back to where Bush had us.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • hopeandcringe

      Had to lay off 15 people over the last 2 years due to government regulations and rising health care costs. Ask my former employees if they are better off today. From 2002 to 2006 my company grew 20% per year, now we are treading water

      July 8, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • BD70

      Really? You laid off because of government regulations and health care costs? Really? Are you sure it wasn't because of the sluggish economy and no one buying your product(s)? Never heard of a company laying off for any other reason than lack of demand. By the way...ACA doesn't kick in until 2014 so you can't blame health care costs on that.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • floridamom1

      Obama's friends are more suspect than Romney's. Obama's own words show his true character. He has totally ignored is oath of office. He has used Executive Orders to ignore congressionally enacted laws. His Department of Justice refuses to prosecute blacks. He refuses to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, and he has refused to obey the immigration laws. But, he also has lied in his own books that he has written.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Wren84

      Flordiamom1: You lost all credibility when you wrote "blacks." Really???

      July 8, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • jrdrop

      Wren84: "Flordiamom1: You lost all credibility when you wrote "blacks." Really???"

      ?!?

      July 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Peggy Munro

      One comedian said that [they] messed the country up, then gave it to the black guy to clean it up. Now when things seem redeemable, they want it back and will pay and do anything for that to happen.

      July 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      floridamom, you should get out of the sun. It's melting the only two brain cells you have.

      July 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • GaryB

      Hope and Cringe,
      I've been a small business owner since 2003. My health insruance rates have gone up every year, with the biggest increases coming in 2006-2007, despite the fact that we had almost no claims. Health insurance companies will raise rates whenever they think they can get away with it, and they'll always try to blame it on something. The boogie man used to be so called frivolous lawsuits (despite the fact that legal expenses for medical providers and insurance companies as a percentage of income has declined significantly over the last 15 years). Now they blame Obamacare, but it's all BS. As a small business owner, you should embrace one of the major tenets of Obamacare - the ability to purchase health insurance on a regulated, nationwide exchange. This will actually give your company the abiliity to purchase insurance for about the same price as large corporations currently enjoy, which can help you when you're competing for specialized/skilled employees. As for your company's growth or lack of it... I know my business started tapering off at the end of 2008, before Obama took office and certainly before any of his policies took effect. I think a lot of conservatives, however, have very selective memory.

      July 9, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • floridamom1

      Yes it does, but sometimes the Lord allows us to learn from our actions. In this case, we are learning what happens when you elect the wrong man for President.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  11. liz

    Perceptions being the operative word.Politicians spend millions to convince us tthat they are great men when if we would do the least bit of research we would they often have feet of clay beholden to the highest bidder$

    July 8, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  12. 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, agnostic/atheist for President!!!

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

    July 8, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Mrs. Eileen G. Curras widow to Hernandez (WWII)

      Ethics In politics matters more than issues every four years, we go through a long and tortuous process. My decision is made by focusing on two things: the candidates’ position on issues and their character.The only way to get post.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  13. Chris

    maybe im alone here but i dont see why this belongs in the Belief section. it would be better suited to the Political section.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  14. jobdespair

    This is all irrelevant when we allow people and organizations to basically buy the laws they want through lobbying. Both candidates seem to be okay with this system, and if Romney gets in his only agenda will be to help his corporate buddies.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • floridamom1

      I think you will be pleasantly surprised if Romney is elected President. You may not agree with everything he wants to do, but you will see that he wants to work with everyone to get the job done. Something the current occupant of the white house refuses to do.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  15. M

    Nothing against character.... it's a necessary foundation of solid statesmanship.... but it doesn't trump a politician's ability to shape opinion and gather followers. Example: Jimmy Carter probably had the best moral character of any president in my lifetime, but he was also probably the worst president in my lifetime in his (dis)ability to lead politically.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • floridamom1

      Which is why it is important to vote into office moral and wise men/women. Until we do that, the whole system will be corrupt. And which is why Obama should never have been voted into office.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  16. Geraldo

    good because obama has no ethics, so he will lose

    July 8, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • BD70

      Enlighten me as to what ethics Romney has.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • PaulC

      Where did you get the magical powers (or delusions) to see the miniscule ethics that hides in the deep recesses of Romney's character? If you think his election will benefit anyone other than the rich you are truly delusional.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • floridamom1

      And if you think Obama loves this country, you are delusional. He has already broken his oath of office dozens of times in the last 3 1/2 years.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  17. Randy

    Great article!!!

    July 8, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  18. no point

    there's no point in even thinking about ethics of the individual when the system is corrupted. throw out citizen's united.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • no point

      stop the revolving doors, stop planting judges, stop corrupting our elections, stop regulatory capture.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • no point

      make the dual citizenship people register as foreign agents acting in the best interest of another country over ours...most notably israel, but there are probably others.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • no point

      end the federal reserve. get a REAL national health plan.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  19. Leeroy

    Thank you CNN. For once, an awesome article that gets to the root of all the problems in the world. VALUES!!! It's so simple . . . yet few spend the time to address them. We walk all around them. Where do values come from? I suggest they come from religion. I'm not suggesting a single religion . . . I'm suggesting most, if not all, good religions have the same set of basic core values. I suggest that if we can all identify those core values, and agree to them internationally, we can enjoy more peace in the world. Basic values, like not murdering, raping, stealing, cheating, lying, etc.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:31 am |
  20. BD70

    Mitt is a stuffed suit. Obama promised and did deliver on some things. Sure he ran into some issues like closing Guantanamo..but when no country wants the prisoners....just how do you close it? He tried. I feel Obama to be genuine and caring...Mitt...generic....that is all that comes to mind. If he cares about anyone he sure doesn't give me that feeling.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • me

      Mitt cares for Mitt.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • floridamom1

      If Obama were truly caring he would have spent the time to gain friends on the other side of the aisle and worked to understand their points of view and use that work to compromise on important legislation. But, he didn't. He has always said, "My way or the highway!" which is why he cannot be trusted.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:23 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.