In his ethical treatise, Nicomachean Ethics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle presents an ethical ideal which is commonly known as ‘the golden mean.’ Using a very Greek love of moderation, Aristotle suggests that humans ought to live in a harmonious middle way, staying away from excesses and extremes. Oddly enough, perhaps the UFO community could learn a thing or two from Aristotelian ethics?
In his work, Aristotle argues that eudaimonia, which loosely translates to ‘well-being’ is the highest aim, or duty, of practical thinking. In other words, how you act in this life should be governed by your desire for wellness.
Well-being, according to Aristotle, can only be achieved by making decisions and acting in ways that maintain a balance. In Book II of Nicomachean Ethics, he states,
“First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly, the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.”
The ideal of “the mean” is to maintain a proper balance in the way we behave and act, and also moderate ourselves. As Aristotle points out, too much courage and bravery can make someone rash, reckless, and even a danger to the lives of others. Too little courage and bravery makes one a coward, and again, can endanger others. Aristotle would suggest that a person must find the middle line; courageous enough to fight for truth, beauty and innocence but not too courageous as to endanger those things.
While I admit to simplifying Aristotle, he argues (in a nutshell) that, we make decisions and communicate with each other based upon three constructs; ethos (our ethics and values), pathos (our emotions) and logos (reason and logic). Aristotle argues that these three constructs must exist in a tempered middle ground. In the case of UFOs and the UFO community, I want to specifically speak to the ideal of logos, the logic and rationality that form our decisions.
On a regular basis, I have, by many within the UFO community, been labelled a skeptic. Within Ufological, and indeed, paranormal discourse, “skeptic” is a dirty word. It holds discursive gravitas in the community; to be a skeptic is to be a heretic. Perhaps the purpose of my article here is to clear the air concerning my position on the phenomenon, but more importantly, to appeal to the logos of the UFO community; we all must walk a middle path.
I’ve written before that the belief system that surrounds anomalous phenomena is a sort of spectrum. It ranges between ardent and extremist believers who follow without question to closed-minded debunkers who refuse to accept the possibility that things exist outside of human understanding. Both of these extremes are, according to Aristotle, unethical and pull us away from eudaimonia. Our intellect is as important as our physical selves, and we have a duty to care for it, to make it “well.”
The Theravada Buddhist tradition even speaks to this notion of the “middle path” for its religious practitioners. In one’s practical life, but also in one’s spiritual and intellectual life, one must avoid excess and extremes as that can destroy the self. The Pāli Canon, one of the most extensive collection of Buddhist texts, states that,
“Avoiding both these extremes...it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment…”
Within any discourse, Ufology, paranormal study, and Anomalistics included, we must strive to maintain a balance between what we want to be true and what is true. Moreover, we must temper those desires. The phenomenon, whatever it may be, can be addictive. It can lead a person down a road of extreme obsession. The UFO community often falls victim to this metaphysical, social and cultural opioid.
It is unreasonable to take the position of, “I think what I think, and nothing can change my mind.” And, as Aristotle would argue, it is unethical. Significant time is spent arguing the finer points of various UFO themed organizations, investigative bodies, Pentagon funded programs, and characters from Ufology’s past and present. Ideological lines are drawn in the sand, and as the bile and venom gets spewed out by believers and debunkers alike, no progress is made. I, personally, am guilty of such actions. Undoubtedly, we all have fought our little crusades knowing full well that nothing would change. No one in this field is innocent of this, and if someone says they are, they are deluded.
I think we must engage in a polite way, and recognize that we have our own biases. When we make a decision to believe in this UFO event or that whistleblower, we may be making a case from pathos (our emotional needs and feelings) instead of logos. It is one thing to say, “I believe” or “I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt,” but those things are not tantamount to truth.
I am a firm believer in maintaining an open mind to multiple possibilities, as that is the definition of true skepticism. A true skeptic does not disregard but regards multiple logical and reasonable possibilities; possibilities that both do and do not concur with believers and debunkers. A true skeptic walks the middle path and operates in the ‘golden mean.’
The researchers worth their salt in the Ufological field are true skeptics. They engage in discourse with an open mind and work hard to be polite (and they will fail at times in this, as everyone does on occasion). They have the wherewithal to admit their mistakes. Moreover, they will not be convinced simply by fancy stories, flashing lights, and rhetoric. They need evidence for every truth claim; it can’t be circumstantial, and it can’t ‘sound true’ but must ‘be true.’ In a world where truth can be mediated and controlled by clicks of a mouse in Photoshop or Final Cut, and where people’s opinions on any given subject can equate to clicks on a website, YouTube channel, and money in a bank account, witness testimony, photographs and video footage must never be enough to hang the truth on.
Aristotle suggests that it is not enough to make conclusions, as those conclusions, at times, can change. Moreover, we must not be governed by the wish for something to be true, because wishing for something to be true “seems to be a good, though it is not.” Through transitive property, we can lump belief into this as well.
Working in the golden mean allows me to believe someone, but also be critical enough to know that my belief does not equate to fact. In other words, my belief can be incorrect, and I have the insight to know that. Moreover, expecting that others should believe, and stating that they are “blind to the truth” because they do not, does not make someone enlightened, it makes them a zealot. If you are going to express that something is a fact, and the evidence leaves room for a shadow of doubt, you have not done your job. A collection of circumstances, testimony and even a video or two is, in a word, compelling. “Compelling” can lead to belief, opinion and speculation, but not to the truth.
Perhaps we must work towards owning and calling out the differences between our beliefs and opinions, and what we know. We must work towards the mean and appreciate that we must be critical of others but also of ourselves. We must not be governed by what we want, but by what is. Let us return to true skepticism, to the middle path, because if we don’t, we are nothing but fools.
- MJ Banias