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)

    I think Romney is Satan's "pick of the litter". ANY of the other "clown car" participants would have been better than him. I think they found Romney hanging, upside down, in some Transylvanian Castle.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • BADGUY



      July 8, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • gg

      How is this a helpful comment?

      July 8, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  2. Voice of Reason

    Voice of Reason

    And there lies the crux of perception for the majority of Americans, god and religion. The two most foolish unproven idiosyncrasies that drives a person's view of another human, yet, here in America it is at the forefront of decision making. If you ask me; that falls way short of thinking critically and making informed and reasonable decisions.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • gg

      If you really think critically, you would realize that Someone had to set the universe in motion. Everything has a cause.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • OOO

      If you don't know the cause (or even if there needs to be one), how can you assume there is a "someone" out there to cause it. And if there is a "someone" out there, who/what made him?

      July 8, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      "If you really think critically, you would realize that Someone had to set the universe in motion. Everything has a cause."

      Would you care to defend your statement with some facts please?

      July 8, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  3. Soho

    So... why is this article in the belief blog? I assume belief here is regarding some supernatural being?

    July 8, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Larry L

      I suspect religious people assume ethics to be founded in religion. I believe the opposite – with the foundation of religion built on social interaction and establishment of rules that allow the society to exist. Don't kill, don't steal, don't covet anybody's ass... etc. Many of the more orthodox religious practices were based on a basic knowledge of public health concepts – eating pork, methods of slaughtering animals, shellfish, etc. It's all interesting as long as you don't take any of it seriously.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  4. shep

    Non Mormons are not allowed in Mormon temples. And even Mormons are not allowed in unless they have something called a "Temple Recommend." Do you realize that if Jesus Christ showed up today, he would not be allowed inside a Mormon Temple? And that is all you need to know about the Mormon church.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • gg

      What is your point?

      July 8, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Jewish

      Good point shep. Mormons are the least ethical of all "so-called" religions. They judge more than even God himself does. They are nothing but a bunch of VERY OLD rich men in a boys club deciding who is good enough and who isn't. Sick.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  5. Tom

    Politicians aren't ethical people. They say and do whatever wins the election.

    I suppose it is an advantage to be PERCEIVED as ethical.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  6. Quickstrong

    ethicist?????? that ranks up there with sandwich artist, and cheese specialist. Did anyone care about character last election? I remember CNN boasting that the election was about change alone. The author states" every year I teach your students about right and wrong." This is something learned over a life of experience not sitting in a classroom for a semester listening to someone blowhard lecture them on his ideas of right and wrong. This guy is a joke he doesn't say or commit to anything.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  7. alfranken

    re: " Paul Root Wolpe says that perceptions about the candidates' character are more important"

    And this it why the Tea party with the GOP spends all their resources and time assassinating President Obama's character. Calling him a liar over and over with no or very little substance. Referring to him as a closet Muslim as to insinuate his character isn't in line with our heritage - making ridiculous claims of character assassinations all day everyday.

    I reality, it does, and should, show the character of the Republican party and those who buy into their lies.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • gg

      Obama is a Christian in name only. It suits his political needs.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • gg

      Obama is a liar or simply lives in his own fantasy world as in 'Dreams of My Father.'

      July 8, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      And there lies the crux of perception for the majority of Americans, god and religion. The two most foolish unproven idiosyncrasies that drives a person's view of another human, yet, here in America it is at the forefront decision making. If you ask me that is way beyond thinking critically and making informed and reasonable decisions.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  8. PCBURGH01

    Most of the electorate can't understand the issues. Hence they tend to go with what they believe and a sense of what "seems right". You don't really think people understand the actual impacts of deregulated financial markets, the absences of Glas-Stegal and what led to the financial sector crash do you? Think about it. The biggest catastrophy to hit the economy since 1929 and we are not talking about making changes to ensure it doesn't happen again? Articles like this keep us so divisive and further promote the notion that religion or perceived character are more important when the fact is this society has become so complicated and modern that college graduates have no clue what's going on. I am all for democracy, but some people shouldn't be allowed to vote. They're too stupid.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  9. TomT

    ROFL. CNN posts an article about ETHICS, when otherwise it slants it's language and coverage to favor it's obvious political favorites. CNN is PROOF that the 4th Estate is DEAD. We need a replacement.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • PCBURGH01

      Just please don't tell us Faux News is your preferred news source. If not, then do you find any news sources reliable?

      July 8, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • TomT's Teacher

      *its language
      *its political favorites

      The ONLY time an apostrophe is used in "it's" is when you mean "it is".

      July 8, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • gg

      Fox news is less biased than CNN.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • BADGUY

      Yeah..I think ALL news outlets, other than Fox, should be banned from dispensing their political lies! For Fox it's OK!

      July 8, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • gg

      Mainstream media gives Obama free campaign ads daily.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Foghorn Leghorn

      Please put this person out of "our" misery.
      Thank you.

      Fox news is less biased than CNN.

      July 8, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • TomT

      PCBURGH01 – Bet you're a nice kneejerk lib
      TomT's Teacher – Bet you're a nice kneejerk lib
      Foghorn Leghorn – Bet you're a nice kneejerk lib

      Do you realize that NONE of you had anything substantive to say, except PERSONAL ATTACK, and the POLITICS OF DIVISION? Sad.

      here is my HOMEPAGE (try it, remove spaces, you might LIKE it):
      https : // www . google . com / search ? q=national+news

      July 9, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  10. Ron

    While I do not disagree with the premise that voters assess "the candidates’ position on issues and their character," it is really much simpler than that. If you believe people come first you vote Democrat, and if you believe money is more important than people you vote Republican.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Mark

      Actually, if you believe that results speak louder than words, you realize neither party gives a damn about people, and you don't vote for either of them.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • gg

      What a simple world you live in. It's just not reality.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • SteveC

      Excellent synopsis, Ron. You stated this correllation in a way people should be able to understand.
      Although Gramm-Leach-Bliley was enacted during Clinton's presidency, this bank-deregulation was created by three Republican congressmen, and along with Reagan's "trickle-down" theory, have decimated the middle class.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  11. bear

    Based on this article Mitt should not get a vote.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • gg

      What do you expect from a CNN article?

      July 8, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  12. Igor alonso

    "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". This should provide some insight into the decisions our president has made lately.... What would you say is driving these decisions?

    July 8, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  13. shep

    Romney will lose because women will not vote for him. Because nothing says women's rights like a religion based on polygamy.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Foghorn Leghorn

      Against Romney :

      retired people
      poor people
      some christians
      immigrants (legal ones)

      For Romney :

      white rich men
      some christians

      July 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • AGuest9

      You didn't start your post with "I say, I say..."

      July 8, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  14. BADGUY

    Obama – Community Organizer. Romney – Bain Capital CEO and confiscator of wealth produced by others. Choose!

    July 8, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Mark

      There's no choice there. They are both parasites.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  15. george S

    Agreed..Like Rudy Giuliani, former GOP Presidential candidate and Mayor of NYC said, ""This is a man (Romney) without a core, a man without substance, a man that will say anything to become president of the United States."

    Giuliani is right...Simply put...Romney lacks political character and cannot be trusted.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • BADGUY

      Leveraged Buyout business plans are immoral and SHOULD be illegal. Romney is said to have "developed" the concept. And he says he is a "Bishop"?

      July 8, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  16. Richard Schwalb

    I would prefer to vote for a candidate with great ethics and character, but when it comes down to voting for one of 2 viable candidates in a particular race, i generally couldn't care less about character. Why in God's name would I vote for a person of good character who openly professes to pursue policies that I believe will be harmful to the nation, my community or my family rather than vote for a person of questionable character who will pursue policies that benefit society?

    July 8, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • george S

      The follow up question is: At what cost?
      Does the end justify the means?

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

      Romney's "LOWER taxes for the Rich, RAISE taxes on the Poor and INCREASE military spending" will INCREASE the deficit WAY beyond Obama's plan....AND...coupled with his stated goal of gutting Social Security and Medicare, will send the lower and middle classes into SHOCK! Consumer spending will crash. Companies will go bankrupt. Unemployment will SOAR. The economy of the United States will collapse. NOW...what did you say about voting for a person who "pursues policies that will be harmful to the Nation"? Romney is NOT ONLY a leech who sucked the wealth out of companies to make his Millions, he's got a bogus economic plan that will bankrupt this country.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  17. shep

    I'm a racist bigot. And I hate mormons. And nobody has stolen my name. I did it all myself, from my own little brain.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Edmundo

      Little is right.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  18. Mark

    This is why I won't be voting for EITHER of the two main candidates. I truly believe that neither Obama nor Romney have a high moral character, and I don't trust either of them. I don't think either of them are part of some cabal to rule the earth...that's just crazy. But they are both liars, and provably so. Thanks, but no thanks.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • AGuest9

      They're politicians, of course they're liars! The point is voting for the one who will do the least amount of harm to the Republic.

      July 8, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  19. Enoch

    They murder unborn ibabies, and they persecute Jewish and Christian children after their birth. Lucifer at its best!

    July 8, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  20. Woody

    Really? Is that why the American people continually re-elect politicians with horrendous ethical track records? I think this article is way off the mark. The reality is that American voters have sold their souls and vote their own agendas and pocketbooks no matter the national and international consequences, and are too lazy to research the candidates and issues.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:14 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.