Curious Qualms of Conscience

Varrick: Usually I look at a project like this and all I think is "WOW! I can make a ton of money off this!" But recently I've been having these...strange feelings. Inside. It's like I'm... concerned with others. And there's this nagging voice in my head. Constantly. Telling me what's right from wrong!
Zhu Li: I believe that voice is your conscience, sir?
The Legend of Korra

You are doing your duty — you know it, you have been instructed from childhood in how to behave properly. Or perhaps you are just listening to something that was done. Properly.

So why do you feel like it was Dirty Business? It is inexplicable, even stunning and shocking, to feel this way about your duty.

The commonest cause is that the evil being done is to someone outside the purported scope of Moral Myopia. Although association with such people can trigger it, it is not required. Others may arise when a character raised to never give a sucker an even break feels guilty about cheating, or other times when cunning appears despicable.

Frequently the character can articulate all sorts of reasons why he should not feel this way and none at all why he should, his conflict becoming manifest in his mute failure to act in a way that defy the qualms.

Can lead to a Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right or a curious Heel Realization where the character thinks he is becoming a Heel, but the audience thinks he is repudiating it. Sometimes, however, the character overrides the qualms.

Examples

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    Comic Book 
  • A long time problem for Judge Dredd, as he's not always able to ignore that a strict interpretation of the law sometimes leads to injustice for individuals, even though it might be best for the society as a whole.
  • In Kurt Busiek's A Wizard's Tale, Rumplewhisker fights long and hard against doing the right thing because he's an Evil Wizard.
  • In Invincible, Nolan feels increasingly conflicted about his mission to conquer worlds when starting a family on Earth forces him to see non-Viltrumites as people for the first time in his life.
  • In Astro City
    • An alien spy scouting out Earth for invasion follows Crackerjack, a competent hero but also a Glory Hound, for a night, and wrestles with the notion of whether his virtues or his flaws (as representative of Earth) are greater, and whether he should transmit his information. His thoughts are interrupted by overhearing Gossipy Hens, whom he despises, and he sends it.
    • A mob member who has lived his entire life by the rule that you take any open door for advancement that you can obtains an alien artifact. He wrestles with the knowledge that it's clearly an open door. Finally, he asks his wife what more she wants out of life, and she tells him that she has more than she had ever dreamed of, and only wants him to be happy to be happy herself. He assures her that he also only needs her to be happy to be happy himself, and puts aside the question.
    • In "Pastoral," Cammie has written out an email detailing how she knows a superhero's Secret Identity and will reveal it, and collect the reward because he's a fugitive from justice. She is told she can connect to the internet — and stares at the screen and decides to go out to the barn to play with the kittens instead. There she learns that the hero is her cousin's boyfriend, and realizes that all the Close-Knit Community is acting as a Secret Keeper — and decides to do the same.

    Literature 
  • Huckleberry Finn thinks it his duty to turn Jim in, because it is wrong to deprive the widow of her property. Although unable to formulate the notion that it is wrong to betray Jim, he nevertheless decides not to do it, even if he goes to Hell for it.
  • In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle, a character reorders his life according to Epicurus, in order to make it actually happy by thinking about what to do, instead of hedonstically following his first impulse regardless of what misery it will bring. Then he impulsively warns someone that he's in danger, and so brings himself into the gulag. In his cell, he concludes that in spite of not being conducive to his happiness, it was nevertheless the right thing to do.
  • In Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess, Wooster insinutes to Agatha that Gil's found another girl. After, he reflects: anything that separates the Wulfenbachs and the Heterodyne heir is to the good of England, so why does he feel like a cad?
  • In Poul Anderson's "A World Called Maanerek", Korul Waren hears that, when discipline problems mounted too high, the ship takes over part of a planet and hands over the locals to the men for rape and Cold-Blooded Torture. He feels afraid that the planet he had been left on was thus chosen, and even when he hears it was done before, he doesn't like it — even though he knows that such things are necessary for the Hegemony to extend itself to take in more people, and so altruistic. He finally concludes he's gone insane and so acts insanely, rescuing a woman prisoner and then blowing up the ship after they escape.
  • Rana Sanga and Damorada in Belisarius Series. Sanga was raised in a different culture; his conflict came from the fact that he had given his word to the rulers that were conducting the atrocities he deplored rather then being brought up to approve of them.
  • In Darkness at Noon, one of the Grand Inquisitor Scenes has Ivanov berating Rubashov for being weak enough to suffer pangs of conscience, which he charges have caused the downfall of every revolution.
  • In Jeramey Kraatz's The Cloak Society, Alex is utterly unable to explain why he saved Kirbie's life, but still feels it was the right thing to do.
  • In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry has Sirius at his mercy, he rehearses all the reasons he has to hate him, and argues against his efforts to protect Crookshanks being evidence in his favor, but he does not manage to act before he is interrupted and stopped. His first reaction to being stopped is not that he failed but that Sirius will suffer the dementor's kiss, which is a Fate Worse Than Death.

    Live Action TV 
  • Subverted in the Blackadder II episode "Head," where Edmund has been appointed Lord High Executioner and is reviewing the schedule of upcoming executions.
    Edmund: Admiral Lord Ethingham and Sir Francis Drake on Monday. snip Buckingham and Ponsonby on Friday. Oh wait a minute. Farrow on Wednesday. Who's Farrow when he's not having his head cut off?
    Percy: Ah, James Farrow, pleasant bloke from Dorchester.
    Edmund: Don't know him, never will either. Yes, and he goes on Wednesdsay?
    Percy: Hmm.
    Edmund: It's not right though, is it?
    Percy: Well no! I mean now you come to mention it, my Lord, there was absolutely no evidence against young Farrow at all! It was an outrageous travesty of justice!
    Edmund: No, it's not right that he should be on Wednesday when we could stick him in on Monday and have half the week off.
    Percy: Oh I see. Yes, that's right.
  • There was an episode of Diagnosis: Murder where the Killer of the Week was a Sympathetic Murderer whose friend willingly framed himself for her crime, rather than see her arrested. After exposing the truth to the police, Mark Sloan muses "Why do I feel so bad?", to which his cop son replies, "What's right isn't always what's easy."

    Music 
  • Invoked in the song "Habaes Corpses (Draconian Love)" by rapper El-P. The song is a conversation between two executioners on a futuristic "prison ship" in a bleak future. The narrator/protagonist is an executioner who's fallen in love with one of the prisoners he's scheduled to kill. At one point, he turns to a friend and asks:
    El-P: Does this job ever bother you, darkly creep up in your concious too?
    Cage: Nope. In fact, I'm so enamored with this standard that being handed a command to [shoot], it's almost romantic. The lead giveth, I'd take it if I didn't understand it.
    El-P: I'm saying, during the tenure of your gig, have you ever herded a [prisoner], who despite the traitorous label, makes you nervous as a kid? Who maybe beyond a date with the lead, there's something else meant for her, a prisoner with the beauty of 247290-Z.

    Western Animation 
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Prince Zuko ends up questioning whether or not he really should capture Aang (but decides not to undergo a Heel-Face Turn, until he does). In the episode "Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, Part 2)", there are also some monks whose order used to serve the Avatar but pledged their loyalty to Fire Lord Ozai; one of them decides to stick to tradition.
    • Varrick of The Legend of Korra is a opportunistic profiteer who is willing to betray his friends in order to make a quick buck. However, when he accidentally creates a Fantastic Nuke in Season 4, he immediately shuts down his spirit vines project, citing the above quote. Unfortunately for him, Kuvira doesn't give him a choice in the matter.
  • Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law covers this in "Droopy Botox". When Birdman manages to defend his client during a medical malpractice suit and leaves Droopy without compensation, he comes to this quandary. It becomes worse as he is promoted to vice president in his agency and gets loads of money over someone else's misery because of his job. He spends a bit of time trying to apologize for this until he decides to just give Droopy his money.