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. New World Order

    Divide and conquor.
    Its the new math.
    Works every time.

    July 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  2. RobinMO

    He was for women's rights before he was against them; he was for gay rights before he was against them; he was for cap and trade before he was against it; he was for the mandate before he was against it; he was for etc, etc.. What do all Romney's flip flops tell us about his character?

    July 8, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  3. jsteward

    ethics and the issues are certainly important but the deciding factor of any and every election is "self-interest"... what are you going to do for me?... in other words ...show me the money. Is that notion of self-interest unethical... no, its called survival and sometimes in its extreme form, survival of the fittestThere was a time when self-interest took second row to the idea of country but today we have leaders who don't represent us, they represent themselves and/or their closest financial backers... so where does country fit in if this is what those who are led see in our leadership?

    July 8, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  4. Manuel J.

    You conveniently left off Obama's promise of comprehensive immigration reform.

    In other words.... Que mentiroso, Obama (what a liar)

    July 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Edwin

      Obama pushed for it, but Congress did more than drop the ball - they buried the ball. Republicans actually made a deal with the democrats so that the democrats would not press that topic - in exchange for votes on certain issues. That happened a few years ago.

      Simply put: no president is EVER going to get immigration reform successfully on the table, unless at least one political side is fully engaged in it and the other is at least willing to listen. Bush put forth immigration reform and it was shot down. Obama pushed to start the process and let it go - health care politics used up too much of his political clout.

      July 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Fearless Freep

      Hey Manuel,
      shouldnt you be washing Romneys car ?

      July 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  5. Obama Mama

    I just saw a clip of a John Stoessel report. How the wealthy in Washington have made legislation that not only have their "American Dream" has come true but they also get things for free at the expense of the american middle class. He said he has a luxury build home on the water and the legislation in Washington has made it possible every time his home is washed away because of the National flood insurance he is able to replace it at taxpayers money.
    He also says people like Bon Jovi and numerous people that have money can afford tax write off on their mansions, because he has a bee farm. Bon Jovi pays only $100. on his property taxes.
    Then there are the farms that the people like Turner of CNN has that he can own land, pay only $200. per acre where the farmers next door, real farmers, pay $6000. an acre.
    We pay so much more for things than the people whom can afford it, only because we are not in the know and it is legal. It is legal though because they have enough money to pay lobbyist to make legislation in their favor.
    There was also legislature for the wealthy to get free electric cars.
    Of course this was a republican station and they only pointed out the dems who have used this legislature to their benefit, we can conclude that the republicans are making use of it also.
    So the next time Jj or someone comes on here saying I am starting a class warfare or that I am trying to get my fair share from the wealthy paying more. I will only have to remind Jj that it class warfare and fairshare has been taken from the middle class for many years, the wealthy were in civil servant jobs making legislation (making legal) for them to steal from the middle class. You can spin it but it is stealing from the lower classes, even if they made it legal and they know it or just can afford a tax attorney.
    By the way, as Mitt made his taxes known yet?

    July 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  6. Snap Drizzle

    What's the worst thing that happened during World War II?
    Hitler died.

    July 8, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Foghorn Leghorn

      Hitler didnt die, he offed himself.
      You should try it.

      July 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  7. Craig

    The true problem is that ethics appear to matter, and "appearance" is more significant than truth.

    In his congressional testimony, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman-Sachs basically said "we don't have to do ethical things, because the law doesn't specifically require them." Technically he was correct, but he revealed much more than a "legal defense position." He told the entire country that in his business, ethics have no place, and they are especially unimportant when they stand in the way of making more money. In short, greed trumps ethics.

    In the past, Presidential elections have often swung upon image. Nixon vs. Kennedy was all about image, and "tricky Dick" seemed to be short of, or at least hold questionable, ethical positions. Later we found out that image was valid. Kennedy's only real issue was his Catholic background.

    Today, ethics seem to be more in the forefront, but largely because the candidates themselves have placed them there. The President has continued much of the Patriot Act, which appears to many to be short on ethical practices. The drone strikes have raised legitimate questions in the same way.

    Romney has created his own issues with ethics, partly because his background, which he tends to use selectively, is rooted in the business of venture capital...or vulture capital...where ethics are just as clouded as Lloyd's. The whole issue with the Super PACs focuses on ethics as a process.

    We "expect" the candidates to spin the news and their words, and we're pretty much in tune with the idea that campaign promises are...well...less than commitments. The President promised to close GITMO, but others prevented him from doing so. He DID, however, try.

    In truth, if this campaign is really about ethics, the winner would carry 50 states, and win with 80% of the vote. Sadly, it's not about ethics, and that means it will be much closer. Ethics are one of those things people talk about, but it's not the basis for their decision unless every other thing is equal.

    July 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  8. Reality

    From p. 2;

    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 4:46 pm |
  9. allenwoll

    Applying Wolpe's criteria, Dr Mengele was an "ethical" person !

    Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm !

    July 8, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  10. Bill Maher on Christian Values


    July 8, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Foghorn Leghorn

      Funny how Maher hits it every time.
      Must suck to be a "christian" today.
      Christian, christian light, christian right, christian left, christian on weekends.....

      July 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  11. Really?

    Duh! What about dubya??? Conveniently forgotten all about him.

    I think it is important that a politician is authentic and a genuine good person. This is why Obama got elected, I feel there is something inherently good, intelligent and ethically sound about him...its more than just political of course, there a spiritual aspect too. There was a wave of utter joy around the world when he was elected because we know he is a GOOD MAN. End of.

    July 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Manuel J.

      Is that why he took Hispanics' votes for granted? He promised comprehensive immigration reform within his first year of office. He had a supermajority and never once broached the subject.

      His having lied about taking public funding for the '08 elections was the first indication this man does what's politically expedient.

      In other words, que mentiroso (what a liar).

      This Mexican-American did not, and will not, vote for Obama.

      July 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  12. yeah, right!

    Sure we do care about our values that is why we have the madoff's the lay's and the like...

    July 8, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  13. Nodack

    Obama promising to close Guantnamo and then not doing it was a broken promise. I can forgive that.

    Bush lying and fabricating evidence in order to invade and kill 200,000+ people was just pure evil. Republicans finding out it was all lies and then re-electing him. I can't ever forgive that.

    July 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • TR6

      If you do a little research you will discover the Republican house blocked Obama from spending any money to close Guantanamo or remove the prisoners

      July 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Manuel J.

      @ TR6. Did you forget that Obama kept the rendition programs intact? In other words, Obama lied again!!!

      July 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  14. MattBMO

    Wow! What utter tripe! So you think we're better than Europe because they've had some bad leaders? And we haven't? We've had some horrible leaders! And most of them claimed to have all the "values" that the voters want, then consistently violated those values!
    The only way to see what a person is really like is to view their actions. People lie, and politicians running for office lie most of the time.
    I am an independent. Mitt Romney has no qualifications to lead the country, looking at his past actions. He is good at looking out for himself. In business, he is good at buying companies, destroying them and their employees' jobs, and making money in the process. But Obama's values mean that he wants us to pool all our money together, and let the government dole it out where it's needed most. I don't agree with that either. So who do I vote for? It has nothing to do with their ethics, that's for sure. It has to do with their actions.

    July 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Manuel J.

      I'm not super keen on Romney but to say he's unqualified is a stretch. He did help get Office Max and Staples going, as a venture capitalist.

      July 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  15. a slozomby

    ethics and us politics should never be mentioned in the same sentence. they're all just looking out for themselves.

    July 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  16. REG in AZ

    Ethics and integrity weigh heavily on the people but not without pressures of biases and loyalties and ... nothing seems to outweigh personal interests and ambitions for the candidates as they favor their strong supporters, especially "the money" with the Republicans, and their own career security above all else (including to being manipulative with the public and even dishonest with their propaganda). So at the least, the voters have to rationalize their priorities for ethics and integrity and likely putting more weight on their biases and loyalties and thus being conned by the political machine, especially by "the money".

    July 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  17. U got it!

    chances are every four out of 5 posters here from the continental US has herpes.

    I am the 5th 😉

    July 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I HAVE a fifth. Wanna snort? *hic*

      July 8, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • U got it!

      the wise would stay a mile away from ya even without the threat of that scare 😉

      July 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You don't know what a fifth is, do you?

      July 8, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  18. tzero

    Of course, withen 5 or so posts, we'll have someone villanizing the Republicans or the Dems. Isn't a bad thing, the thing is we're just WAYYYYYY to caught up in parties.

    July 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  19. PRISM 1234

    My observation has been that only in election times ethics are "important" in politics. Any other time, $$$$$$ talk! Greed is the disease of American very structure.
    How do you mix ethics and greed? They, the politicians figured it out: Being sponsored and empowered by big mafia corps, fashioning speeches full of great swelling words, broadcasted over the TV screens in almost every American home, it bring results.... and the naive American 'sheep' nodding their heads have become numb to the lies, not being able to see through that no matter which camp spews them, it is all the same crap they are being fed all the time!

    July 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Foghorn Leghorn


      I remember during the Iowa caucus, a woman was wearing a "Bachman" t-shirt.
      The reporter (local tv) walked up to her and asked her why she was going to vote
      for Bachman.
      The woman replied, because she will do away with Obamacare.
      This womans only reason on earth to vote for Bachman was because
      she would do away with other people being able to afford health care.

      That my friends is how sick the Republican party has become.

      July 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      "That my friends is how sick the Republican party has become"
      You've got that right! And to think that the Christians of this country have numbed their consciences to such level that they don't see their hypocrisy, it is beyond comprehension! I honestly believe that if devil himself dressed as Republican, many of them wouldn't discern who it is they're dealing with!

      July 8, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  20. tzero

    DURRRR GOP JUST BLOCKS, OBAMA GETS NO HELP, LIBERALS KNOW NOTHING, WHINE WHINE WHINE. That's all i hear from people, hey doofus, why dontcha' get a clue, get different reps and sen. up in that legislative branch.

    July 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
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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.