Forest Vs Tree Dilemma
Should the heroes allow one to suffer for the good of many?


(permanent link) added: 2011-12-10 11:36:43 sponsor: Earnest (last reply: 2011-12-14 21:05:32)

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This is a kind of moral dilemma heroes will face where in order to achieve some greater goal an Innocent Bystander (or worse, an ally) has to be allowed to suffer and possibly die. Or worse, has to be actively harmed by the heroes. For example, heroes out to help a great many, such as by infiltrating and destroying a Wretched Hive or criminal organization, have to act callous to the harm done to the innocents around them, and perhaps even participate in the cruelty to keep their cover. Inversely, heroes out to concretely help a small group or individual may discover that doing so will harm a number of others. A hero with just enough money to save a Determined Widow's farm from foreclosure may discover that same money could also be used to get new school supplies for the underfunded school.

This can lead to conflicts of Good Versus Good where one group of goodies, lets call them Foresters, and another one, lets call them Tree Huggers, disagree on whether or not it's acceptable to care more for the welfare of the many at the expense of the few, or the one. Tree Huggers (who are usually The McCoy) may point out that just because it's for a good goal doesn't justify harm, and a systematic view of people as expendable will only lead to a slide down to Lawful Evil. Foresters (Usually The Spock) on the other hand will argue that if the individual is held up at the expense of the many, actions toward collective safety/security/prosperity may be impossible to do fast or thoroughly enough. This creates a dichotomy between heroes who are more focused on the smaller, immediate need, and those who focus on the big picture, even at the expense of the immediate need. Here, the Tree Hugger sees the forester's mission as doomed, and the Forester sees the Tree Hugger as unfairly ignoring the needs of the many.

Frequently, villains will use this dilemma paired with If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten or a Sadistic Choice to flush out heroes who may attempt to infiltrate their group. Heroes who lean strongly towards the Tree Hugger side will be unable to go through with it, or try to somehow Take a Third Option. That said, even a hard hearted Forester who does what's necessary will also take the opportunity to help those they can so long as it doesn't interfere with their mission in a sort of Hidden Heart of Gold fashion.

Authors can lean any which way on this, and which of the two is the hero depends on their own slant in a given story. That said, emotionally it's far easier to vilify Foresters for their immediate cruelty (or inaction) than it is to do the same to Tree Huggers. In fact, a favorite set up for sympathetic villains have them take the Forester's stance against a Tree Hugging hero.

The dilemma can be set up many ways, but the scenario's usually boil down to these two possible Sub Tropes:
  • The many are going to be harmed, though that is not the heroes' fault. Unfortunately, the only way to save them is to harm the few. Here, the forester argues that however unpleasant it might be, utilitarian ethics dictates that the few must be sacrificed to save the many no matter what. The tree hugger argues values ethics (and the Hippocratic Oath, if he or she has a medical background) dictate that a hero should never do harm to an innocent, even if that harm helps others.
  • Everyone is going to be killed unless one person is sacrificed. In that case, Fridge Logic reminds us that there's no point in being a tree hugger in this case, because the few will be harmed along with the many. Usually the situation calls for a Heroic Sacrifice. But if The Hero doesn't have the option of only sacrificing himself, asking someone else to sacrifice themselves for the good of the others, or going to their death knowing the pain it will cause their loved ones is a terrible thing to do.


Examples:

Anime and manga:
  • In the first episode of the Anime version of Sands of Destruction, Taupy states that "There are two kinds of heroes. Heroes who save the world, and heroes who save single, nameless individuals." Later, he concludes that, "It turns out there's another kind of hero. The kind of hero who leads the world to destruction."
  • In the origional Gall Force, the crew of the Star Leaf, on a mission to further the solnoids' efforts to build a new home for themselves, are faced with a plot by the paranoids to use suicide troops to rape solnoid women in order to create a hybrid race that will be less violent, so that even if the paranoids and solnoids destroy each other, something will survive. At first, the crew believe it's more important to complete the mission, but as the conflict continues, they begin to have second thoughts, ultimately concluding that the life of the hybrid is more important.

Film
  • The main moral debates in 2012 centers around this. First, whether or not warning all humanity about the looming apocalypse would be ethical or just ruing any chance for humanity's survival. Later on in the Arks, whether the survivors had the obligation to open the loading doors and risk the safety of those onboard to let on a few thousand more people.
  • In Star Trek II, Spock lampshades this, stating, "logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Later, he uses this to justify his self - sacrifice to save the Enterprise.

Literature
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: Melisandre insists to Stannis that they must sacrifice Edric Storm, a child, to bring the stone dragons back to life so Stannis can reclaim his throne and save Westeros from bleeding from this war any longer. Davos absolutely refuses to let Edric be sacrificed.

Live-Action TV
  • In Battlestar Galactica, Laura Roslin switches from tree hugger to forester fairly quickly in the miniseries. She starts by deciding not to abandon the survivors she was gathering when faced with an imminent attack, and later decides to leave those on ships without Faster Than Light drives when a second attack comes.
  • In Terra Nova, this is the source of some conflict. One faction, championed by Taylor, sees Terra Nova as a last chance for humanity to start over with a smaller group, much like the Arks in 2012. Another would rather search for a way to pillage Terra Nova to feed "old Earth", even though that appears to be impossible.
  • In The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles:
    Dr. Schweitzer (on treating the poor): "I see it more as, ehm, gathering pebbles from a beach. I couldn't carry them all, of course, but I can certainly carry a handful each day. And each pebble I save has value."

Video Games
  • Used as a plot point for Silver's story in Sonic The Hedgehog 2006 in which to prevent his world from becoming a dystopia due to the demi god Iblis, he must travel to the past and kill the "Iblis Trigger" that started it all. He is prevented from having to make a choice when it is revealed to him that this is all a trick by Mephiles.

Western Animation
  • In Futurama it is revealed to Fry that Nibbler in fact caused him to get sent into the future (and indirectly caused his potential death) in order to stop an evil force only his brain signal can withstand. When Fry calls him out on this, Nibbler points out the Forrester method.

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