Thick Versus Thin Libertarianism: Which One Should You Choose?

The other day I wrote about what libertarianism is: Thick versus thin. Today, I’d like to continue the discussion with a consideration of what libertarianism ought to be.

The nature of a discussion like this is fraught with sidebar considerations about what one hopes to get out of which part of their moral code. I’d like to start with that, so let me explain what I mean.

I think it’s safe and uncontroversial to say that most of us don’t have an all-encompassing and airtight moral philosophy underpinning every thought that they have. Even those who think they do have a hard time living up to the one that they have, and of those few who attempt to do so to the greatest extent possible, only a small fraction relate absolutely every thought that occurs to them back to their moral philosophy. This is probably a good thing. Someone so obsessed with moral philosophy that they cannot have a normal thought without related it to their moral code would be mentally unhealthy. We also encounter a wide array of morally neutral situations all the time, like choosing which socks to wear and decided whether to step with your right or your left leg first when walking up a flight of stairs.

In other words, at the extreme end of the spectrum, you have obsessive people who cannot encounter any stimulus without moralizing it. I take on assumption that this is bad behavior. On the other extreme, you have people who refuse to relate anything to any sort of moral code anywhere. These are uninteresting (and possibly non-existent) cases. In the middle, there is a whole spectrum of real people who apply one moral code to most of their decisions, no moral code to some of their decisions, a different moral code to some other decisions, and in special cases, apply multiple moral codes to a few of their decisions.

That’s life. That’s what it’s like. While we all strive to be perfectly philosophically consistent and well-behaved, the truth of the matter is that no one yet has invented a philosophy so complete and so perfect that every situation is addressed by it. We humans, being the resourceful creatures that we are, like to supplement an inevitably incomplete moral philosophy with something else sometimes, be it a lesson from some other philosophy, or a good rule of thumb, or a gut instinct, or whatever else it might be.

I hope you can see where I’m going with this. “Thin” libertarianism, being the contextually limited set of ideas that it is, works well as a partial philosophy, a set of recommendations for a limited set of philosophical questions. If we venture beyond that limited set of questions, we exhaust the capabilities of “thin” libertarianism, and when we encounter a problem it can’t address, we must rely on some other philosophy or set of ideas. By contrast, “thick” libertarianism aims to be a complete set of philosophical ideas, or at least a more complete set, capable of answering a wider set of questions.

So, one answer to the question of what libertarianism should be is, It depends on how much ethical work you want your libertarianism to accomplish. For some, libertarianism defines a relationship to government, and they have other ideas that govern non-governmental spheres of life. For others, libertarianism is how they approach everything, and thus they need their libertarianism to cover the ground that might be covered by, say, a thin libertarian’s religious system.

All that reading for kind of a dumb answer, right? “You get to choose which kind of libertarianism applies to you!” Of course you do. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is when a thin libertarian and a thick libertarian reach different conclusions on a given issue, and we then have to choose which solution is “more libertarian.” That’s what I’ll be discussing next time.