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Posted on Mon, Oct 15, 2012 : 11:27 a.m.

Fairness: What does it mean to you?

By Wayne Baker

15ov Is Our Balanced System of Justice Still Working.jpg
Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing fairness.

A reporter from TIME magazine contacted me last week to ask about research into “fairness.” The word is a political football this year, and TIME wants to sort it out. The findings that I dug from my national surveys, in response to that request, were striking. This week I’ll share some of them with you.

The basic questions are: Do we agree on what fairness means, anymore? Does our country still place a high priority on fairness? Are our famous scales — the symbol of our fairness — perhaps getting rusty or even falling into disrepair?

Fairness: Here's what the data show ...

Do you believe that all people should be treated justly and fairly—even those you don’t know? If you do, then you’re like most Americans. Just about every American subscribes to this fundamental value. In fact, 98 percent of Americans agree with it. And, there is no difference by political ideology: liberals and conservatives equally endorse this value.

Do you believe that the entire world’s people should live in harmony? Think carefully; the entire world embraces an enormous diversity of cultures, religions, lifestyles, customs and mores. This is another area of broad and deep consensus among Americans. More than nine of 10 Americans believe that everyone should live in harmony. There’s hardly any difference at all between liberals and conservatives.

Now, you might ask, how could anyone disagree with those statements? How could anyone think differently? In other parts of the world, people do disagree with these statements. They don’t believe everyone should be treated fairly, or that everyone should live in harmony. If that’s hard to believe, then it’s because you have so strongly and completely internalized the core values of our society that they seem self-evident.

Of course, disagreements arise when we try to figure out how to treat everyone justly and fairly. Obama and Romney have very different ideas about how to do that, as we’ll discuss this week. For today, consider these questions:

What does fairness mean to you?

Do you agree that everyone should be treated justly and fairly?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.



Mon, Oct 15, 2012 : 4:15 p.m.

I beleieve any and all commenting on this story will be rich with irony...