home
RSS
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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.

My Take: Will there be gays in heaven? Will there be fat people?

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.

Melinda Gates, Catholic, defends financing contraception

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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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. shep

    I love it. As soon as the Romney/Mormon wall begins to crumble, the Salt Lake City war room fires up. All the old poster for hires show up, summoned by their Mormon masters. This just in. Mormons are claiming Jesus Christ is a Mormon. Is Utah still standing, or has God reached down and slain the blasphemers??

    July 8, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • shep

      Did I forget to mention my religion? Moronism.

      I practice it every day.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • shep

      Go to hell. I hate Mormons. And I'll keep posting my bigoted views.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  2. LouAZ

    “Democracy has few values of its own: it is as good, or as bad, as the principles of the people who operate it. In the hands of liberal and tolerant people it will produce a liberal and tolerant government; in the hands of cannibals, a government of cannibals.” – Norman Davies, EUROPE A History, pg.-969.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  3. tom LI

    And we certainly KNOW Romneys character. He's a coward, who runs from his past...and has turned running for Prez into an actual Job. So I guess he did create some Jobs...his, a few staffers, and some limo drivers. What a great guy!

    July 8, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • shep

      I'm gonna vote for Romney.

      I'm a Republican. And proud of it!

      July 8, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • inotherwords

      Ya, Obama is a community organizer who can't organize a cupboard let alone America – in fact he's made such a mess of things we're very excited to send him back to his old job of organizing whatever he supposedly organized.

      bye Obama – ain't gonna miss ya.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • cljdago@gmail.com

      So only NOW is character a real concern? Certainly not when we knew nothing about candidate Obama, aside from his ties to known domestic terrorists and anti-American, racist preachers. Back then it was wrong to dig into character.

      But now it's all about character. It's all about finding out exactly who this Romney is. Where his money and investments lie. Where his loyalties are.

      Let's ignore everything on Obama's side though.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Larry L

      cljdago have you ever heard of "birthers"? How about the in-depth study of his pastor? Ironic they were making that noise at the same time they were calling him a Muslim. The right-wing simply created conspiracies about President Obama when the facts weren't politically damaging. Hate and bigotry are powerful motivators – as Romney is learning from the Evangelicals.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Adam

      Oh boy!I love all the jobs Obama has created! Just like he said he would! Wait.... not quite, hmm?
      Obama can only dream that nobody will focus on his failed economic reforms, ballooning debt, and atrocious foreign policy and instead focus on his "good character". Yeah. Not everyone's THAT stupid, just the democrats.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • shep

      I'm gonna vote for Romney.

      I'm a moron. And proud of it!

      July 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  4. inotherwords

    In Other Words – because Obama is a GIGANTIC FAILURE ON ALL ISSUES, lets instead focus on 'ethics'!

    CNN you guys are horribly liberal and not worth the read. No wonder your ratings are so low.

    Glad people are waking up that the real problem isn't the fairness reports, but the skewed liberal bias of CNN and MSNBC.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • shep

      And yet you are here

      July 8, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  5. tom LI

    I thought all the talk about their faith and such was a short-cut to their character? "I have faith in the Xtian God, therefore I am abundant with all the right character traits you need to vote for me!"

    July 8, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  6. shep

    You take that back. Meanie!

    July 8, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  7. Arnulfo

    shep is a nut job.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  8. Renee Marie Jones

    Character is how people select a President?!? You are telling me that the American people WANT a President that is dishonest, corrupt and hypocritical? Egad! Now I am *really* depressed.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Dan

      Well, He got elected as Governor of Massachusetts with those charector traits, now you have a chance to try to take him to higher office. Then again you elected w, hrw and ronny so you don't have much to compare the mittster to, do you?

      July 8, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  9. Voice of Reason

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

    The polls prove that most Americans would never vote for an atheist and I should be proud of that? Give me a break!

    July 8, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • inotherwords

      because atheists are self centered drama queens.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      @inotherwords
      "because atheists are self centered drama queens."

      Care to explain?

      July 8, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  10. tony

    Anti-European slandering nutjob, with rose colored glasses. A damn sight more crooked Pols in the US than we ever had iin Europe. Will only "religious values" are ethical come next?

    July 8, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  11. shep

    CNN is bad? Fox Fake News employees are being arrested in England everyday. By the dozens. Gosh. Fox Fake News wouldn't do that in America, would they? As soon as filth like Sean Hannity is being perp walked down the street in handcuffs, America will start to rebound. Let's start today.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • shep

      Did I mention that I'm a complete brainwashed idiot?

      Wanna know why?

      Because my TV set is stuck on MSNBC.

      I don't know my a$$ from a hole in the ground!

      July 8, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • inotherwords

      In Other Words – because Obama is a GIGANTIC FAILURE ON ALL ISSUES, lets instead focus on 'ethics'!

      CNN you guys are horribly liberal and not worth the read. No wonder your ratings are so low.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  12. Bill C

    I feel the author has missed a key point when talking about broken promises. Many promises rely on congressional action, which may or may not pass. Should a president be blamed if congress thwarts the promise. I don't think so

    July 8, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  13. George

    Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Regan. Purely an issues decision.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • shep

      Jimmy Carter was the second worst president in US history.

      Barack Obama is the worst.

      You betcha, fella!

      July 8, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • BADGUY

      Except for Ronnie Ray-Gun and the Bush "Twins". No one has done MORE damage to the United States than those, "3 Stooges"!

      July 8, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  14. Seyedibar

    It's a shame that so many people confuse ethics with religiosity.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  15. George

    Does every CNN piece have to mention gays? Amazing how h0m0s3xuality is exalted on this site, whereas the vast majority of people understand its immorality. There's nothing ethical about sodomy.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Edwardo

      There are millions of heteros who participate in sodomy. Quit acting like heteros own morality, and everyone else is immoral. Your Puritan mentality is archaic and totally false.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Prove your as'sertions with even one study. Put up or shut up.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • As Far As Siam

      The vast majority of people have no problem with it.
      How does it feel to be a minority ?

      July 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  16. tony

    How can anyone publish and article on Ethics at CNN? when they just employed the Lobbying Crook, Jack Abramoff as a Policticl Pundit. e.g.:

    On Thursday, Abramoff joined presenter Soledad O'Brien, New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza and others to analyse the recent US Supreme Court decision ratifying President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law.

    Introducing Abramoff, O'Brien acknowledged he had spent more than three years in federal prison – then plugged his new book.

    She questioned him about the impact of the healthcare decision on the lobbying profession and how lobbyists would seek to influence Congress on the matter.

    "Always nice to have you," she concluded. "We appreciate it. Thank you."

    July 8, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Riles

      Didn't realize that Abramoff was running for president - or that his inclusion on CNN prevented an Emory professor from writing an ethics piece on CNN.com...

      July 8, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  17. tony

    Why publish an article on Ethics at On Thursday, Abramoff joined presenter Soledad O'Brien, New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza and others to analyse the recent US Supreme Court decision ratifying President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law.

    Introducing Abramoff, O'Brien acknowledged he had spent more than three years in federal prison – then plugged his new book.

    She questioned him about the impact of the healthcare decision on the lobbying profession and how lobbyists would seek to influence Congress on the matter.

    "Always nice to have you," she concluded. "We appreciate it. Thank you."CNN, when CNN just employed the Crook Jack Abramoff as a contributor.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  18. tafugate

    i completely disagree. how many times does a politician flip-flop based on public opinion? how many times does a politician propose a bill beneficial to all, but changes his/her mind because the other side supports it? ethics are the least of most politicians' worries. lying, deceit, disingenuous, self-serving are the norm.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • chubby rain

      Alright, the perception of ethical character then...

      July 8, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  19. Agreed

    Whoever becomes president, to me their positions do matter less, since many of their perceived mandates are filtered through the Congress. But their character and their ethics are displayed everyday, and they represent all of us in America.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  20. shep

    This just in. Jesus is now a Mormon. did he wear a magic diaper? Have 55 wives? Believe in planet Kolob?? So now Jesus Christ is a Mormon??? Wow. Blasphemy on a Sabbath morning.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • shep

      Did I also mention that I'm a complete idiot?

      In case you couldn't figure it out.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • godisimaginary.com

      This just in, all religeons are ridiculous, they all have backwards ways of thinking. They all perform outdated, stupid and silly rituals that do nothing and serve no purpose in modern society. They all preach intolerance of one another and that if you don't believe in their strain of religion you will spend eternity in anguish.
      How fvcking stupid. All religion is illogical and can not back any of their claims with any proof or evidence other than their "holy" books which are collections of ancient fairy tales with no base in reality.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • shep

      Ah, stealing my name. The ultimate compliment. God, I'm really in your head.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • shep

      Stop arguing with me!

      July 8, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • *hint to @shep

      Maybe if you tone down the brash barbs a bit, you won't be such a target. Rarely does anyone "steal" a serious, polite poster's name.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • As Far As Siam

      The Sabbath is on Saturday.

      July 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Advertisement
About this blog

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.