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Why ET Contact Sucks

The Ethics of Alien Contact and Abduction.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

The alien abduction narrative has been a part of popular culture for a long time, and the UFO narrative has countless allegations by experiencers of alien abduction and contact. Initiated by some intelligent Other, those meetings flow along a spectrum from kind and benevolent visitations to abusive and violent kidnappings. Two general camps arise in the abduction enigma; the benevolent spiritual meeting, generally, but not wholly, accepted as “contact,” and the cruel malevolent snatching of a person, typically known as “abduction.” 

For many, it may be clear that abductions are a violation of ethics, but what about the countless people who have had alleged visitations from benevolent beings who have come to impart some kind of divine knowledge? Is contact, on the part of ET visitor, ethical?

Jodi Foster and David Morse, Contact (1997)

From an ethics standpoint, the act of an abduction, to literally "take someone" is a pretty simple call. By definition, an abductee, is taken without consent. The probing, stealing of ovum, and the rest of the abduction tropes in UFO discourse, are generally seen as morally wrong. 

The stories of contact are much more difficult to understand. The ethical quandary is much more complex, but when fully explored, contact is still an unethical practice. The stories of contact are generally the same. A person is visited by a powerful being that gives them information. The being is described in various ways, from humanoid to angelic to an orb of light. The being follows a mythological and often archetypal narrative in that they arrive, meet the contactee, and impart some sort of wisdom or idea that the contactee would never have known had the other never made contact. The information given is typically a warning, a message, a prophecy, or simply a notification for the contactee that they are special or unique in some way. 

People of Earth (TBS)

Ethically, this becomes problematic when we examine the power dynamic present in the relationship between the contactee and the alien initiating the contact. The dilemma arises in two fundamental ways; the matter of agency and deus ex machina.

The first ethical question that arises is the agency of the contactee during the contact event. While the event may not be damaging in any physical or psychological way; it may even be beautiful and spiritually awakening as many claim, the contactee loses their agency to the more powerful being. If it is accepted that the alien being is more powerful, be it technologically, psychologically, magically, or spiritually, the contactee is essentially helpless to resist the contact. Much like any religious visitation, it is the human that must take on the responsibility placed upon them by the deity. For the deity, there is no risk, no difficulty, and no change to their status quo. Rather, the visited, the contactee, bears the burden of the information, be it a task, prophecy, or even a message of “being chosen.” The contactee receives all the turmoil and risk to their existence.

The contactees’ agency, their ability to exercise free choice in life, is essentially lost when they accept the power of the other. If the alien being was an equal, and the power dynamic was not differentiated, any epiphany, insightful knowledge, or mission would be decided upon via an act of freedom. If two people engage in debate, and one manages to sway the other to their side, both maintain their agency because one is no more powerful than the other. This is not the case in contact phenomena. There is a clear power imbalance in favour of the intelligent Other; it is not important that they demonstrate that power, which they usually do in some way according to many versions of the narrative, rather that the contactee believes that the being is “greater” than the self. It is not free will to accept the word or actions of a being more powerful than oneself; rather, it is coercive.

Travis Walton experienced an abduction/contact event in 1975 in the forests of Arizona.

The second ethical dilemma stems from an ancient narrative device known as deus ex machina. The term comes from Greek tragic theatre in which the gods, during the final moments in the story’s plot, would resolve the conflict in some way and save the day. By expanding this concept out of its literary roots to the contactee narrative, the ethics behind a powerful being saving humanity creates a problem; a false sense of consolation where humanity is unable to save itself. Not only is agency lost yet again, humanity becomes the child of a helicopter parent who shows up to save them before they can learn from their own mistakes. Much like the characters in a story which contains the deus ex machina plot device, the contactee has no choice but to accept the fate mandated by the intelligent other. While we may be able to applaud the being for warning humanity to avoid calamity, we should take issue when humanity is not allowed to scratch out its own destiny. 

The contactee is essentially trapped. The status quo is removed, and they wait patiently, albeit begrudgingly, for their saviour to return. They experience a moment with a being that is greater than themselves, yet they gain no significant insight that will allow them to transcend. Promises are made, but how many are actually kept? While new understanding may be tentatively gained, can the contactee successfully spread that message to the rest of the world? 

The more powerful being gains and loses nothing in this transaction, as they themselves are undoubtedly powerful enough to alter any human endeavour or trajectory. Instead, they opt to provide a chosen human with enough information to entrap them, but never enough information to begin a world changing revolution. The contactee is unable to go back and “un-experience” the contact event, and they are unable to move forward, to create change and to save humanity, since only the intelligent other has that ability. While the abductee is able to move forward with their life, the contactee is handcuffed to the phone booth, hoping for another call. 

Whether the abduction and contact phenomena are real or not, we can argue that both events are equally problematic for the people involved. Peaceful or not, these meetings beg significant ethical questions. Since the intelligent other is, according to the narrative, more powerful than the humans involved in the meeting, they bear the burden of maintaining the ethical standard for the benefit of the weaker party. Human ethics generally accepts this idea; schools, for example, have stringent and specific codes of ethics for educators working with young children. The ethical burden is not upon the children to maintain these mechanisms, rather, it is upon the adults since they have the power to uphold them. If, and it is a big IF, alien beings from other worlds or dimensions are visiting people on Earth, and the abduction and contact narratives are legitimate, those beings are in serious violation of human ethical standards. Perhaps someone should let them know... 


Read next: Fail-Safe
MJ Banias
MJ Banias

MJ is a writer and theorist who explores the modern UFO phenomenon, and other strange Fortean subjects. He has been featured on podcasts, writes for Mysterious Universe, and is also featured in the book 'UFOs: Reframing the Debate.' 

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