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. Rainer Braendlein

    I guess, one of the best books, which was ever written about political leadership, is the "Antimachiavell" by King Frederic the Great of Pruzzia.

    There are two editions of the Antimachiavell: One is modified by Voltaire and the other one is the genuine scripture of Frederic. I would recommend only the original scipture of Frederic.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  2. Keith

    Since most politicians have bad character then we do not have much chance of getting the kind of leadership that we need. The part that Paul Wolpe left out is that you can develop strong leadership skills without morals, or ethics. That is what America is faced with today.

    At the founding of America the 1% were only 10% richer than the rest of us so there was a feeling that we were all in this together. That doesn't exist today. It is us against them and steal all you can without getting caught.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Paulie

      Obama gave more money to the 1% while he was in office than any other man on the planet in history in the form of stimulus. Banks, car companies, insurance companies etc. Wake up as he is about to give them even more.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  3. Phil Truth

    What kind of jobs get shipped overseas? Minimum wage answer the phone read a script jobs. Are we upset because American companies would rather pay $2 an hour than $7.50 for someone to do a no skills job? Get real. Any company would be mismanaged not to outsource those jobs.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Leo

      This policy is ultimately self-destructive to society – as confirmed by the compelling decline of the middle class. Profit over people/society with policies that enrich an elite class has often occurred in human history and in EVERY case, balance was ultimately restored by the people. So too will it in this country. Social justice is an enduring trait of our species and those that suppress it for personal gain ultimately reap the consequences of their greed and inhumanity.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  4. Paulie

    The Romney campaign called the latest ad a continuation of “desperate lies,” citing reports by several independent fact-checkers that have discredited the suggestion that Romney himself had a direct role in relocating U.S. jobs overseas.


    “We found no evidence to support the claim that Romney — while he was still running Bain Capital — shipped American jobs overseas,” FactCheck.org concluded in a report last month.

    Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler also concluded that while Bain-owned companies may have engaged in outsourcing, Romney’s ties to the practice are tenuous.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Paulie

      Outsourcing isnt offshoring.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • hmm

      Tenuous? I doubt it.
      Furthermore, the man has offshore accounts AND has still not released his taxes. He's a sleaze. Character DOES matter.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Paulie

      Even when presented with the facts. Haters gonna hate.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Keith

      He is a liar and has liars backing him up.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Paulie

      Keith: think of the 100s of liars backing up Obama-- congressmen, senators, czars, secret service, the FBI, CIA, etc....

      July 8, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Paulie

      Whats wrong with keeping your money overseas while Obama is President? Maybe he is afraid of losing it. Its really his right to keep his money wherever he chooses. I have had creditors and officers of the court take my money right from my bank accounts without my permission to pay debts. Maybe he just doesnt trust banks.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Surfer George

      Paulie, Romney has done both.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Surfer George

      I find this amusing and ironic:
      “We found no evidence to support the claim that Romney — while he was still running Bain Capital — shipped American jobs overseas,” FactCheck.org concluded in a report last month.

      On the one hand, Romney can be in charge and not responsible, but on the other hand, anything (BAD – in your opinion) that happens ON THIS PRESIDENT'S WATCH is President Obama's responsibility – and of course, he gets none of the credit for good stuff.

      Pick a standard, a COMMON set of rules by which to measure everyone. THEN make judgements.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  5. Bill

    How long has it been since we've had a president who really was ethical? Obama and Romney's ethics are cartainly in question. We could spend all day presenting cases showing an absense of ethics on those two. Bush lied about the weapons of mass destruction to lead us into a war. Clinton lied under oath about his extra-marital affairs in the White House and his involvement in the Whitewater scandal. How far would we have to go back to say "this was our last president with any ethical qualities"? THere's too much party politics now. Theres too many favors to be repaid to the candidates donars.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Paulie

      Is covering up a murder ethical? Ask Obama and Holder.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • hmm

      Paulie...how much do they pay you to post here?
      Covering up a murder?
      If you're going to make accusation, provide sources to back them up. Otherwise, stfu.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Paulie

      hmm: I dont get paid to post here I just like to make people think a little. There was a murder. Obama is helping Holder cover his tracks by using executive priveliege. Whats not to understand? Obama also had Somali pirates killed without a trial, and Osama Bin Laden. Not that I am a fan of either of those people but in America you are supposed to be tried for crimes not just executed.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  6. Art

    If ethics matter please explain how Bill Clinton got elected.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Louis Green Bay

      Ethics don.t matter accept to those who still believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. This country is run by big business and big money, whether it comes from the bosses or the uniopns. Anyone who thinks their vote actually means something when big business and the unions have already picked your two choices should go look under the bush in the front yard, I think your easter egg is still their.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • concerned scientist

      Clinton was running against the somewhat more intelligent Bush I, who facilitated the failed trickle-down economic policies of Reagan.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Surfer George

      READ MY LIPS...

      And at RE-election, Dole was in the pockets of Business and Clinton. In both, while flawed he always came across as the real deal, a guy that everyman (and woman) could identify with and undersdand.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  7. leftover

    Ethics, moral principles guiding behavior, without integrity, demonstrable commitment to ethics, is opportunism.

    American's electoral choices are limited to opportunists who will say and do anything to gain political advantage, i.e. money.

    The only real benefit the American electoral process provides is hope that the chosen opportunist, in the never ending quest for political advantage, will do something in the public interest that is marginally beneficial.

    Just look at the current crop of leaders, lawmakers and candidates to see how low our collective expectations for politicians and public figures have been set.
    All is religion and blind faith rules the congregation.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • kosh

      Exactly, when we elect someone to office, we only hope to chose the lesser of the two evils. I've been saying this for years, when someone becomes a politician, they immediately lose the ability to tell the truth and act in an honorable or ethical manner towards the people who put them in their job.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  8. Alfred Brock

    The perceptions that politicians and the parties have about the American people is what is most important – they have a culture that has flourished and believes that the average American is an uninformed idiot and must be lied to in order to protect them. This has led to the absurdity of sending American soldiers to die to 'defend' freedom in Afghanistan while the government sells jobs to Communist China and opens their arms to an invasion from Mexico.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  9. M.F. Luder

    Ethics and politics do not co-exist. That isn't a belief, it's an absolute.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  10. FactsAreGood

    If ethics is the most important quality, then we're screwed.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  11. ttttt

    Ihear people talking about wanting a business man in office cause they think he might do better. Well they are not thinking deep about that. Romneys new nickname is; Overseas Romney, cause everything he has is sent overseas. His accounts (which means America does not get his tax money) he made his wealth off of sending jobs overseas. How could anyone want to vote for a man to be our leader if he doen't want to invest in his country that he wants to lead?? Ii dread him becoming president. Talk about losing jobs, we will be at 50% jobless rates if he gets into office. Abusiness man only thinks about the bottom line, and that means anything that is a waste of money, social security, welfare, healthcare, etc., will be on the chopping block. So really think about wanting a business man in office and what that will really mean.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  12. CBR

    Character is most important of all. How a President acts and reacts is most important. There is no question that one man will come out on top. That question was answered already.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  13. Johnson

    If Ethics are the main issue then Romney loses big time. The man has wronged so many by closing businesses and outsourcing American jobs. He has also switched many of his so-called important values depending upon whose votes he is trying to get.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  14. Mirosal

    Romney ran a brokerage house. Yea, like THOSE peple have any sense ofethics, right? Oh, and then there's Obama. He's a lawyer.. again, not a very ethical profession is it? Lawyers rank at or near the bottom of most trusted people in America. So you're down to a person who likes to gamble solely with other people's money, or a shyster.. good luck.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • hopeandcringe

      i will take the guy that doesn't have terrorists friends, a shady Muslim past and a Anti American pastor any day of the week

      July 8, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • hmm

      hopeandcringe....you need to turn off Faux News. Honestly. A "shady Muslim past"? How is being a Muslim shady? Pres. Obama has never denied that he attended an Islamic school as a child. His step-father was Muslim! It should be pretty clear to you that he is no longer a Muslim since he drinks beer, eats pork, and belongs to that CHRISTIAN church that you all beat like a dead horse.
      What, exactly, is shady about being a Muslim? You sound a bit xenophobic, to me.
      He also does not have "terrorist" friends. What precisely IS a terrorist? A terrorist is someone who terrorizes, right? Wouldn't you say, then, that Romney's company terrorized businesses when they took their assets, laid off a bunch of people, and then let the company go into bankruptcy?

      July 8, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Paulie

      Being a lawyer is pretty ethical. If you commit a crime and are charged - you cant be a lawyer anymore.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Surfer George

      Here is the (SIGNIFICANT) mitigating factor to your posit – CHOICE – (former) Governor Romney, in his time at Bain CHOSE to act in a way that put money into the pockets of him and (a small group) his friends, at the expense of the workers and, in the case of retirement funding, even American tax payers. He HAD to know what he was doing, he certainly would not have wanted to go to jail for his actions, so he found the edge of the law and used it to pillage for profit.

      President Obama, often to his detriment has demonstrated not just a willingness, but a desire to cooperate with Republicans. He COULD have become a Corporate lawyer, he has the credentials, the grads, etc, but chose to work with PEOPLE to help them deal with Government, businesses. He STILL managed to amass a respectable fortune, by any measure and, as a comparative unknown was able to do in a couple of years what Romney has been unable to do for what seems like a decade of non-stop campaigning – become President.

      Obama is not a saint/Messiah/God, he's a decent man, a flawed human, but a far, FAR, FAR, less ethically challenged human – Ethics/Morals matter.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  15. VVVV

    Get rid of this kind of forum system! It's not as fun, harder to read, and doesn't facilitate discussion as much.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  16. Ed

    Let's get this straight. Pres Obama has kept every campaign promise he could, He has looked out for the middle class as much as he could. He has taken as many vacations as he could. He has played as many rounds of golf as he could. He has raised our countries reputation around the worldd as much as he could. He has pandered to as many minority groups to get reelected as he could. He has lied about republicans as much as he could. Get the picture??

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

      Not really. What exactly are you insinuating?
      Presidents do have down time, you know. Everyone deserves a vacation now and then, esp. someone with one of the most stressful jobs in the world.
      By this time in his Presidency, Bush had taken many more vacations than Pres. Obama, so I'm not exactly sure what you are tryiing to say here....just spreading nonsense for pay, I suspect.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  17. Albert

    Both Obama and Romney stand for nothing but lies. Can't believe a word either of the same. Ron Paul was a saint on the stage and he was booed off for being too ethical I guess. Point comes across very clearly from bought out press that we're not supposed to like him. He's too good for the rest of them.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • ORLY?

      Not that I don't like Paul, but I think his draw is more ideological than practical. Same goes for any "good" politician. Would you rather right now have a totally nice ethical guy in the white house, or a guy that wakes up every morning, eats a puppy while slapping his mama, but balances the budget, wipes out unemployment, and makes sure everyone is fed, healthy and educated?

      Mr Smith can still go to Washington, but I doubt the poor guy would crawl out of the vipers den looking like the same man that went in.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • hmm

      A SAINT?!
      Oh, please.
      He believes in ethics via Ayn Rand, who was a horrible person.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  18. planethou

    Gee, an ethicist is arguing character is more important than issues. How surprising....not. Perhaps they are. However, when you're a hammer everything looks like a nail.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  19. Jerry Pelletier

    That's why Obama is finished!.....He's and his administration are so very corrupt, forget the ethics part of it....these guys are borderline crooks and we idiots have them ruining our country!

    July 8, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • mike

      Yes, let's put romney in. A person who transports animals on the top of his car. A man who picks on and torments people with no regard of how they feel. A man who profits from shipping hard working americans jobs overseas. A man who passes the same version of "Obama care" in his state and than criticizes THE SAME BILL when it's intraduced by a Dem.
      Sorry but this guy has no heart and no soul.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • vmgopaul

      Politics, politics, politics. Politicians in North America, Europe and Africa are partly to be blamed for all the problems. Politics needs to be changed. I wrote a political thriller, Tainted Justice. For more info goto : http://www.vmgopaul.com/

      July 8, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • hmm

      Put up or shut up, Jerry.
      Don't just make accusations. Provide sources.
      Get used to this Koch-funded garbage, people. It's going to be a LONG 4 months.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  20. George

    I agree but haven't we been bashed over the head for the last four years with what cuckoos we are if we think Obama is a pack of lies. No one knows where the jerk is from but the press has turned the audience into the jerk if they question it.

    July 8, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • hmm

      He's from Hawaii, brain-trust. EVERYONE knows where he's from.

      How much do the Koch Brothers pay you to spread lies?

      July 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Face

      I don't think it was the press that turned the audience into a jerk. Maybe conservative echo-chambers though.

      And no, I'm a moderate. But I'm tired ofte toxic political atmosphere both conservatives and liberals create.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
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