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Debate and Switch
Tom: Well, I guess Peyton did prove guys are better than girls. At least when it comes to playing Chaotic.
Kaz: Yeah, except Peyton used girl creatures, and Crystella used guy creatures.
Sarah: Which proves that... girls are better than guys?
Everyone: Hmm...
Chaotic, Battle of the Sexes

A work of fiction sets up a moral dilemma or other painful choice, then finds a way to resolve it without actually addressing the issue it raised. Say, Alice is seriously ill and Bob is considering robbing a local pharmacy to get the medicine she desperately needs. Then he wins the money he needs in the lottery, meaning that he (and the writers) never have to come down on the question of whether theft is acceptable for a good cause.

This trope is used for a number of reasons. It allows the show to resolve the tension without (1) giving an unrealistically clear-cut or Anvilicious solution to an ambiguous problem or (2) alienating the half of the audience who would disapprove of the resolution if the characters did make the hard choice. It avoids having to deliver a Family-Unfriendly Aesop (who wants to be on record saying that theft might be okay if you're in dire straits?) And it lets creators flex their godlike muscles: it's their story, and they're not bound to send it toward the Downer Ending that would almost certainly result for the Real Life Alice and Bob.

Expect this in works invoking ethnicity and/or gender tropes in ways that might otherwise be blatantly liable to charges of Unfortunate Implications, e.g. relating to Mars and Venus Gender Contrast. Usually, a Debate and Switch is pulled in one of the following ways:

  • The antagonist is originally set up as doing something that falls in the moral (and legal) gray area, then jumps off the slippery slope or is revealed to be a Straw Hypocrite.
  • The evidence points to the antagonist having committed a crime over the issue under discussion, then new evidence is uncovered that shows that the motive was actually more clear-cut.
  • The protagonists are put into the morally gray situation, then Take a Third Option.
  • The protagonists are put into the morally gray situation, then another consideration makes it much more black-and-white. The decision is made on that consideration, with the original considerations becoming moot. No Third Option necessary, just a Second Question.
  • Before a decision can be made, outside events render it moot, such as a suspect dying in an accident while the antagonists are debating their guilt.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • In Inuyasha, one of the driving points of the narrative is whether or not the eponymous character would use the Shikon no Tama to turn into a full human (or a full yokai.) The point is moot since Kagome destroys the Jewel at the end of the manga. Any wish would be 'wrong'.
    • Then again, quite a bit of emphasis is put on the fact that Kagome loves him just as who he is, making it ultimately a "Be Yourself" aesop.
  • Naruto made a major plot point being the villain's plan to lock everyone in the world into their own personal dream world that would give them their every desire. Whether or not this would ultimately be a good thing for a world that raises child soldiers is glossed over in favor of discussing how villainous the means of the people trying to set it off are using. Later on it's also added that the plan also slowly turns people into empty zombies, making the initial debate further removed by having the dream world be fatal.
  • One episode of The Daughter of Twenty Faces deals with how the protagonists are supposed to be sympathetic when they're major thieves. The main character befriends a lonely little girl, who happens to be the daughter of the head of security for a museum holding the object the protagonists want to steal. In doing so, she learns how to sneak past the security guards and that *Gasp* stealing a priceless object from the museum could cause big trouble for the kindly security chief and his innocent daughter. Chiko's huge betrayal of her new friend is softened by the revelation that the little girl was actually evil at the end of the episode, and everything she said about her father was probably a lie.
  • Done in Mahou Sensei Negima!, of course. Is it right to stop Chao Lingshen, who is obviously not a bad person and seems to have a good motive? Negi spends so much time worrying about it that his students basically just tell him to shut up after a while, because if it was so important she ought to just tell him. Eventually, they decide it doesn't matter what they're doing is right or wrong, they just don't want to be turned into ermines and Chao hasn't convinced them otherwise. Some fans think it was intentional in order to set Negi up for Fate, who also seems to have a good goal and bad methods. He notably worries much less about it, anyway. Which may have been why Chao set up the moral dilemma in the first place.
    • Well, that isn't exactly a very good example, after all, the morality of whether or not to stop Chao Lingshen's plot is resolved. They decide that since the plan would require the suffering of completely innocent people for it to happen, it must be stopped. A much better example would be Fate's Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory plot, which Negi already has planned that will postpone the annihilation of the magic world.
  • Monster does this, although it must be noted that the moral ambiguities it toys with have been debated for centuries and probably will continue to be debated for centuries after: Is all life equal? Do some people deserve to die? Is it right to kill a killer? Is evil irredeemable?
  • Fushigi Boshi No Futago Hime: Fine and Rein find out that Mirlo is in an Arranged Marriage with a rather undesirable dimwit, and are out to break it up. Reviewer Al1701 pointed out that this action seems short-sighted, since the deal for the marriage is in exchange for dimwit's father repairing the Waterdrop Kingdom's cloudmaker. That is, until the whole Arranged Marriage turns out to be a big ruse by the Moon Kingdom chancellor. Doesn't stop this from being one of the best eps of the whole series.
  • Trigun
    • In a flashback, we see Vash trying to find a way to rescue a fly from a spider's web. His brother Knives solves the problem by crushing the spider. When Vash protests, he claims it was just practical and that if Vash wanted to rescue all flies, the spider would just starve to death, which is a valid point. Vash and their caretaker just say it's wrong though, and moments later Knives turns into an Axe Crazy Omnicidal Maniac. It's a shame, because the series manages to turn Vash's goody-two-shoes character archetype into a well rounded and interesting Deconstruction. His opponent, not so much. This isn't so much the case in the manga, where it's revealed that Vash and Knives are Plants that humans use for power; in this context, Knives sees the conflict between the spiders and butterfly as inevitable and synonymous to his own.
    • There's a broader implication never really examined at all but nevertheless there in the special guns Vash and Knives have: Knives' gun is basically an ersatz neutron bomb: it wipes out all living things, leaving inanimate structures intact. Vash's gun is the much-coveted inversion of this, a device that wipes out all inanimate structures such as buildings and weapons, but leaves all living creatures alive. However, as shown in a couple of episodes, Vash's gun is not necessarily any more humane than Knives' is, as it also leaves the survivors devoid of shelter and starving.
  • In Bakuman。, several older and less successful mangakas start submitting works for Jump, prompting a debate between Takagi and Mashiro over whether they should be given a chance for a comeback; Takagi doesn't think so, while Mashiro, whose uncle kept trying to get a series even after his contract was canceled, strongly disagrees, and Nizuma believes that writers should not be treated as disposable. It turns out that Nanamine is using these mangakas as his way to try a second time with an improved version of his "system".
  • Death Note poses the question: does utopia justify the means if you plan on ending all crime by killing all criminals? Said question is rendered moot by the fact that the perpetrator, Magnificent Bastard Light Yagami, goes from a Well-Intentioned Extremist into a Villain Protagonist with a god complex who kills all who oppose him. This is also present in the way someone responds to Light trying to justify his actions. A lot of the morality debate is cut from the manga, and the final debate between Light and Near is cut down to its bare minimum, including Light expressing his belief that he's not only getting rid of the criminals, but creating a society where people are free to do good. Near similarly believes that Kira is forcing his own views onto others under threat of death, "neither peaceful nor just," and asks everyone else what they think about it, to which they respond with tacit approval. While there is considerably more examination of the ramifications of Kira's new world order in the manga, the authors ultimately leave it up to the reader to decide, but note that Light was corrupted by having the power to kill at will.

    Comic Books 
  • In The Walking Dead, after the misogynistic Thomas murders two of Hershel's daughters, Rick decides to implement a "You Kill, You Die" law and declares that Thomas should be hung. This decision is debated by others, but it comes to an end when Patricia lets him out, believing that he's mentally ill and not responsible for his actions. Thomas proceeds to strangle her and is shot by another of Hershel's daughters.
  • In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 9 comics, Buffy learns that she is pregnant, and has to decide whether to have her child and raise it as a Slayer, knowing that the kid would be a target for her enemies. In the end, she apparently decides to terminate the pregnancy, but soon it is revealed that Buffy's brain had been transplanted into a robot body, meaning that there was never any decision to make at all.
  • Subverted with Spider-Man villain Cardiac: Spider-Man foiled his attempt to murder his latest target, a Corrupt Corporate Executive who escaped blame after a family died in an auto accident from his faulty brakes, but the guy suffers a heart attack and they send him to Eli Wirtham, the best heart surgeon in town. Problem is, Eli Wirtham is Cardiac, and he's being asked to save the life of the guy he just tried to kill. He knows he could do it and get away with it, but should he kill him? He doesn't, or at least he tries not to; the guy dies anyway. But Eli can't help but wonder if he held back during the surgery even just a little, and if that makes him any better than the "indirect" murderers he hunts down as Cardiac.
  • Used in an X-Men tie in to Secret Invasion; the Skrulls are besieging San Francisco and tremendous loss of life is expected. Beast reveals he has a virus that, if released, would destroy all the invaders in one shot, but that he has no way of controlling once released and may ultimately lead to the extinction of the entire Skrull race, even those not involved with the invasion. The X-Men ultimately decide to use the virus... and the infected Skrulls kill themselves, so the infection ends with only them.
  • In Civil War, a group of super-powered teenagers filming a reality show attack a group of villains, causing one of them to explode like an atomic bomb, destroying all of Stamford. Public hysteria ensues, and super heroes are placed in a difficult dilemma: with uncontrolled super-hero actions banned, heroes must sign the Super Registration Act and work for the government, or be hunted down by all the government forces (including the superheroes that signed for it). The registration side won, and things stayed that way for a time. Well, and once the thing has lasted long enough, how do we return things to the way they always were? Easy: put a supervillain on top of the registration side, put all superheroes on the other side, and turn a topic of grey and gray morality into a topic of black and white morality.
  • Similarly, with X-Men, Mutant Registration Acts are never given an actual debate. It's sometimes acknowledged that, hey, these are people with the power to level mountains just by opening their eyes and reasonable people might want some means of protection from the bad ones, but the Act is nearly always being pushed by bigots who are using it as the first step in wiping out mutantkind.
  • The theme of the second volume of New Avengers is the debate over whether or not it is ethical under any circumstance to destroy a planet, as numerous alternate Earths are revealed to be on a collision course with the main Earth, meaning certain doom, most likely for both, if they collide. The first such planet is eaten by Galactus before the Avengers can decide what to do about it, and the second they do destroy, but it turns out to be uninhabited.

    Film 
  • In the first X-Men movie, Magneto isn't trying to Kill All Humans; he wants to turn the leaders of various nations into mutants. Now that's still ethically highly questionable, but... oh, never mind, the process is fatal, and he won't believe this. And just to make sure Magneto has a firm grip on the villain ball, his "process" is powered by an unwilling Rogue. The sequels avoid the issue altogether by making him progressively more villainous. In the second film, he does try to Kill All Humans (apparently unwilling to pass up the opportunity after the other villain nearly managed to Kill All Mutants), and in the third film he even sees his fellow mutants as expendable pawns.
  • State of Play, so much so the main plot is made moot by the last 10 minutes of the film. And because of this the Big Bad for the most part goes unharmed. Cal McAffrey clearly didn't know how to sort out the Sorting Algorithm of Evil, or prioritize the Sliding Scale of Villain Threat.
  • In the 2009 Star Trek movie, Kirk offers assistance to the about-to-be-crushed-by-a-black-hole Romulan ship, whose crew committed genocide by destroying Vulcan. Spock objects to this. Before any actual debate could happen, Nero, the ship's captain, tells Kirk to go screw himself, thus giving Kirk all the moral cover he needs to hasten their inevitable destruction. Kirk even says to Spock that offering them a chance for survival is the logical choice. note 
  • The Contender: So, will Laine win the Vice Presidency despite the furore of controversy surrounding her? Will she prove to the world that the bending of the truth and exposure of someone's shady moral history should never be used for political gain and need not necessarily ruin your chances of a high-powered career? Never mind, the girl in the photos wasn't actually her after all. Oh, and her main rival's a backstabbing liar. Crisis averted.
  • Some see the whole movie of Fighting the Odds: The Marilyn Gambrell Story as this. The problem with this movie is that it brings up a lot of issues without actually talking about them. Particularly the complicated socio-economic background of most of the kids.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier raises the question of whether Project Insight, which will allow SHIELD to make preemptive strikes against threats, can be justified. Later it turns out the people behind Insight are be HYDRA sleeper agents, who intend to use Insight to secure world domination, and their preemptive strikes being directed towards many innocents.

    Literature 
  • My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult. The book asks the interesting question of whether or not it is wrong to have a child (Anna) solely to provide blood/tissue/organs for a sicker child (Kate), then gets out of answering by killing Anna in a car accident and having her kidneys donated to Kate anyway. In the movie, however, this does not happen; after Anna wins, Kate dies. (And Kate actually staged a Thanatos Gambit to be able to finish her suffering.)
    • Another Jodi Picoult example: Handle with Care asks if it is okay to sue your doctor for not telling you about a disability, and if it is okay to abort a disabled child. Claire wins the case anyway, and the child dies after they win.
    • In Sing You Home, it asks the question of whether or not LGBT parents should be allowed to have a family, and who gets things such as frozen embryos after a divorce. Zoe and Vanessa get the embryos because Max (Zoe's ex-husband, who they are fighting in court) is in love with his sister in law (who he is planning on giving the embryos to) and doesn't want to see her happy.
  • This happens in Mercy. The whole thing is about the ethical issues of euthanasia and mercy killing, and it turns out that... oh, wait, it doesn't. Not only do we not get an overall view on euthanasia, we don't even get to find out the views of 90% of the characters. It's the kind of 'debate' where people stand around chatting and occasionally eat a biscuit.
  • Winds of the Forelands has at its center a smoldering racial conflict, and the Big Bad is a leader of the oppressed race who claims he will liberate it. He's also a Hitler-esque tyrant who would make everyone's lives worse if he actually won, so it's up to the heroes to stop him and let oppression continue. Apparently, the only reason it even comes up is so the villain's followers can be portrayed as misguided rather than evil.
    • Firmly averted in the Sequel Series Blood of the Southlands, which focuses almost entirely on the racial conflict, with the closest thing to a real Big Bad being killed early in the second book, leaving the remainder of the series to deal with the race war her actions set in motion, while the actual war is Grey And Grey morality.
  • In Twenty Years After, d'Artagnan wants to kill Mordaunt, but not out of a sense of justice — he is blinded by a desire for vengeance on the sins of Mordaunt's mother, twenty years ago. Athos, on the other hand, is tired of violence and wants to let Mordaunt go, in spite of his own terrible crimes. The dilemma is made moot when Athos kills Mordaunt in self-defense after trying to save him.
    • Mordaunt was also hellbent on killing them all over his mother's death, d'Artagnan (along with Porthos and Aramis) simply want to save their own skins. Athos' reluctance was due solely to Mordaunt possibly being his son. The debate is more "Is Mordaunt's revenging his mother's death just in the eyes of Providence."
  • In David Isaak's Shock and Awe, one of the protagonists is an ex-special forces operator with many personal grievances against Muslims, including losing her brother in 9/11. A mysterious billionaire offers her the chance to strike back with vigilante attacks, culminating in an audacious plan to hit Mecca with a dirty bomb. Along the way, she starts doubting whether she is really doing the right thing and thinking that maybe this is going too far. Before she gets a chance to work it out, however, the billionaire is revealed to be in league with another bunch of terrorists, who take the radioactive material and try to use it on the US.
  • In the Paladin of Shadows book Unto the Breach, Mike falls for Gretchen, whose hand has been promised to another. He tries to force himself to perish the thought, but struggles with it, including thinking of pulling an Uriah Gambit. Eventually, though, Gretchen gets KIA, sparing the trouble.
  • Played for laughs in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, when Dirk relates the tale of some physicists who attempted to carry out the Schrödinger's Cat experiment for real. When they opened the box, they discovered that the cat had got bored and wandered off somewhere.
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin can be read as a dramatized debate over the question of whether anarchism, represented by the "Odonian" philosophy practised on the planet Anarres, or liberal democratic capitalism, represented by the nation of A-Io on Anarres' sister-planet Urras, is better. Though the author clearly prefers anarchism, for most of the book the question is dealt with subtly, with the failings of Anarresti society and the successes of the society of A-Io both being shown. Then, practically out of the blue, A-Io massacres peaceful protestors by the thousand. Well, duh, Anarresti anarchism is better than that. The whole philosophical debate is tossed aside and replaced by Baddies Are Bad.

    Live Action TV 
  • Law & Order has refined this into an art form. Earlier seasons generally pulled it off better, relying on the debate being resolved with a previously-introduced detail. Later seasons used the Ass Pull with impunity, as every half-hearted Chewbacca Defense became a brilliant legal strategy the DAs were too incompetent or ill-prepared to overcome until they picked up on the one fact they missed during all of their trial prep.
    • In one Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode, a woman is believed to have drowned her baby because it had Tay-Sachs (which is confirmed). At the end of the episode, it is revealed that she had had an affair and gotten pregnant, and killed the baby because she didn't want her husband to know. Even the Assistant District Attorney complains that the woman was convicted only "because I turned her into a whore".
    • In another episode, what looks like a rape turns into a right to die debate until it turns out the woman who runs the "lemme help you suicide" website entered into a suicide pact with someone and didn't fulfill her end of the bargain. The debate then becomes about whether that's murder, manslaughter, or something else.
    • Another Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode discusses whether it is acceptable to apply capital punishment to a woman, who by this point has already been proven to be a serial killer. The woman hangs herself. (It should be noted that this pissed off the characters as well.) Even before this, the episode has already pulled another Debate and Switch by implying that the woman has been trying to support her son. The boy isn't even hers; she had kidnapped him.
    • A husband played by John Ritter cuts his unfaithful wife open and kills her fetus, claiming he was enraged by the thought of her having her lover's child. The trial is not so clear-cut because killing a fetus isn't murder unless there's proof that it took a breath outside the womb. As he's on the stand, Cabot presents him with evidence the fetus actually belonged to him and he killed his own child, prompting him to admit the baby cried before he killed it. Notably the episode ends before the verdict is read; the viewer is meant to assume his insanity defense was rejected solely on the basis of the murder charge being provable.
    • One prominent example occurs during the first season, when a woman is on trial for bombing an abortion clinic. The moral issues of abortion are debated, even going so far as to polarize the main cast members (and, it's implied, the jury), but then the ADA pulls the rug out during cross-examination by pointing out that, by killing a pregnant woman, the bomber also murdered her unborn child. Cue one guilty verdict.
    • Subverted when a man kills the insurance executive who vetoed an extremely expensive treatment for his terminally-ill daughter. During the trial, the insurance company reverses its position, putting her on the medication and giving strong credibility to the justification that the murder saved his daughter's life. But the judge refuses to allow the jury to hear about this, insisting the trial should be about an eye for an eye.
      • For the record, this one ended on a "hopelessly deadlocked" hung jury, and it's strongly implied the DAs aren't going to bother trying again.
    • "Scrambled": a woman is charged with Felony Murder after she hires an ex-cop to break into a fertility clinic and destroy her eggs and he kills a worker who walked in on him. The case hinges on whether or not one's own eggs can be legally the property of someone else, for the purposes of establishing the predicate felony. Except during the break-in the cop destroyed another couple's eggs too, but they didn't initially come forward to report the 'loss' for other reasons.
    • Happens three times in "Progeny", another abortion episode. The killer uses the "preservation of life" justification of killing the abortion doctor to save a woman's unborn fetus. McCoy first points out that since the doctor's intended patient was really the killer's partner and her scheduled abortion was a ruse to lure the doctor out that her fetus was never in jeopardy. He then digs up evidence the defendant's motive was revenge against abortion doctors after he failed to prevent the woman carrying his child from getting an abortion. The defendant's spiritual advisor, a pro-life advocate who insists on making a jury debate the value of the "preservation of life" argument, claims he was the defendant's co-conspirator, having provided the gun and transportation for him to kill the doctor. On the stand, he claims the justification defense but McCoy asks him why, if he believes its morally right to kill abortion doctors, did he not just pull the trigger himself instead of giving the gun to the killer? The answer was that no matter how much he decried abortion, he still knew it was wrong to kill anyone, thus he did not believe in his own defense.
  • In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Scientific Method", it is revealed that the crew have been the subjects of medical experiments by an alien species (a thinly-veiled allusion to animal testing). Janeway finally manages to get the experiments aborted by flying Voyager into a pulsar, which is stated to be nearly-certain death, which scares the aliens off and destroys one of their ships that doesn't get away in time. Of course, Voyager survives. The reason this is this trope is that Janeway is only acting that way because of the experiments of the aliens.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Haven", the episode begins with Deanna Troi facing an arranged marriage. The episode is one extended debate over personal choice vs. cultural expectation which is soundly side-stepped by the plague ship from the B-plot suddenly having aboard it the woman Troi's husband-to-be has dreamed of all his life (literally).
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The episode "Dax". The titular character, a symbiont who lives inside of a Trill host, is accused of committing a crime. However, the crime in question was allegedly committed when the symbiont was bonded to Curzan, and it has since been passed to Jadzia. Since there is no way to remove the symbiont from Jadzia without killing her, the case becomes a question of whether or not it is right to punish Jadzia Dax for a crime committed by Curzan Dax. Both sides make strong points... Which are all rendered moot by the last minute revelation that Curzan didn't commit the crime in question. The issue of whether or not Trill symbionts can be held accountable for their past host's actions is ultimately never resolved.
  • Much of the Doctor Who episode, "Boom Town", is dedicated to a debate on capital punishment, where the Doctor is put in the position of making the choice. Before the Doctor has properly made up his mind, Blon Slitheen looks into the TARDIS and is turned into an egg.
    • In the very next story the Doctor realises the only way to stop the genocidal Dalek fleet from wiping out everyone on Earth (and then moving on to other planets to wipe out their inhabitants too) is to send out a pulse that will not only kill all the Daleks, but also himself and everyone on Earth. The Doctor is saved from trying to decide whether it's moral to kill a load of people in collateral damage (when inaction will lead to their death anyway) to save everyone else when Rose becomes an almost literal Deus ex Machina and saves the day by effortlessly wiping out the Daleks without any further casualties.
    • On a later Doctor Who episode, "The Almost People", they spend a long time making it clear that the gangers are just as real as the people they're duplicating, and not just tools. Helpfully, at least one of each pair dies before making it back to the TARDIS, smoothly avoiding any dilemmas when they get back to their families.
    • The episode "The Beast Below" sets up an interesting moral dilemma by revealing that the entire future-city of London is kept alive by a star whale, which must be tortured regularly in order to keep it from escaping. This brings up the moral issue of whether to free the whale, dooming the city, or continue torturing the whale. However, the issue is avoided when... it's revealed the whale wanted to help them anyway and it stays of its own accord because it couldn't bear watching children cry! Phew!
      • Less so than the above since they do come to a final response for the dilemma, the twist at the end means they didn't have to go through with it but they still came to a final answer for the dilemma. He was going to fry part of it's brain so it could still function to keep London alive and not suffer but would essentially become a vegetable
    • In the Trial of the Timelord series, the Doctor wipes out an antagonistic race of aliens as per usual and is promptly accused of genocide. Instead of dealing with this issue, we get the revelation that his accuser is the villain behind everything.
  • Star Trek: Enterprise had an episode where the switch was an even bigger moral decision. Initially it's about whether to interfere in the natural arrangement of a pre-warp society (a stone-age species is kept in benign slavery by a more advanced one), but then it suddenly turns out that the disease that's been spreading among the dominant species (and for which the crew was helping to find a cure) is a "natural development" of their evolution (which may well "solve" the problem of the stone-age species' subjugation by killing their caretakers). So naturally, the crew decide to give them relief of the symptoms rather than a cure, in a proto-development of the Prime Directive (its most appalling application in the entire history of the series, which is ironic as it was intended as a justification for it). And then people wondered why the Star Trek franchise took a breather.
    • This was actually the result of Executive Meddling, in the original script Phlox refused a direct order from Archer to give the species in question the cure he had developed. The higher-ups were worried that a major conflict between the characters might upset the audience, so Archer's decision was changed at the last minute to agree with Phlox. Unfortunately this had the opposite effect as viewers began calling Protagonist-Centered Morality.
    • A better usage was in the episode "Affliction" in which Phlox and the Klingon Doctor Antaak have been tasked with finding a cure for the Klingon Augment Virus which is threatening to wipe out the entire Klingon Empire. Dismayed to see Antaak preparing to euthanize one of the infected test subjects with a lethal injection, Phlox interrupts him and an argument breaks out between them as Antaak insists that giving one's life to save millions is a most honorable way for a Klingon to die while Phlox contends that such a killing is ethically unthinkable. While they're arguing, their boss General K'Vagh pulls his disruptor, calmly shoots the victim, and tells them "Proceed."
  • In an episode of The 4400, one of the returnees has the ability to heal genetic defects in utero. It is later revealed that this returnee is a Rwandan war criminal and the rest of the episode debates whether his ability to heal should preclude him from getting sent back to Rwanda to pay for his crimes. It is later resolved by revealing that every genetic defect he fixes is taken into his own DNA, making him sicker. Either way, this man is assured a death sentence; it becomes a choice of whether he dies quickly via execution or slowly, but helping others along the way.
  • Angel Season 4: It's an interesting question whether the heroes should defeat Jasmine, who brought peace to the world at the cost of humanity's free will. The revelation that she eats people makes the debate moot.
  • Airing bravely (or perhaps coincidentally) in the midst of the Terri Schiavo debate's worst excesses, Malcolm in the Middle had a plot requiring Hal to choose whether to pull the plug on a similar patient. In the end, in a parody of this trope, Hal solves the problem with a hitherto unconsidered third option. We never learn what this option is, only that it involved Radio Shack and a hat.
    Hal: "Once I realized how much he loved birds, the answer was so obvious!"
  • Private Practice did this with an episode where the doctors were asked to sterilize a woman living in a relationship with her biological brother (the pair had met without knowing about their blood relation). Much screentime was spent by the cast agonizing whether or not they were encouraging incest by agreeing to the procedure or not. In the end, the question became moot when it was revealed that the brother had known all along, causing the couple to break up.
  • Season 8 of Smallville introduced Davis Bloome, a.k.a. Doomsday, who, due to his split personality, discovers he is responsible for the deaths of several people in Metropolis. At one point he is goaded into becoming Doomsday; under the other side's influence, he smothers the person, and Doomsday recedes, allowing him control. Once Clark and Chloe figure out that he's been killing criminals to keep Doomsday at bay, they have to decide if Davis is still a good guy making the most of a horrible situation or a horrible killer. They seemed to be leaning toward the former, then he gained his freedom and promptly hopped off the slope by killing Jimmy, cementing him as a bad guy.
    • Clark in Season 9 was faced with the difficult question of what to do about the Kandorian refugees: should they try to pass as normal humans and live regular lives or acquire their rightful Kryptonian powers? Being normal left them vulnerable to paranoid humans who had no qualms about killing them off but under Major Zod's leadership, the empowered Kandorians were destined to conquer Earth. Clark gives them a third option: shaking their faith in Zod and using the Book of Rao to send them to another plane of existence where they can make a new start.
  • Battlestar Galactica, which can usually be counted on to examine social problems at some length, fell into this trap in Season 4.5. In light of recent discoveries the policies of the Adama/Roslin administration are brought into question — the two had fielded an Ends Justify The Means approach to getting to Earth, especially Roslin who followed her visions on blind faith. Even in the midst of the latest scandal, Roslin is irresponsibly letting the government get out of control without allowing another leader to step into power, and Adama is considering allowing the Cylons — the same Cylons that nuked the 12 Colonies and then tormented the population of New Caprica for a year — citizenship into the Colonial Fleet. While Adama may have justification for contemplating this move, the show is right to suggest it, as well as Roslin's childish behavior, deserves to be re-evaluated with care ... however, when Adama and Roslin's opposition turns out to be led by Felix Gaeta and Tom Zarek, who summarily attempt to kill many of our beloved characters and succeed at killing numerous secondaries, the writers opt for a different approach. It seems that getting our protagonists into tough spots was not on the agenda, after all.
    • Battlestar Galactica had a recurring theme of What Measure Is a Non-Human?, about whether the Cylons are really "alive" and had souls. But according to Caprica, the Cylons originated when a human's memories and personality are coded into a digital avatar. So basically, the skinjob Cylons have bodies molecularly indistinguishable from humans, and their minds are essentially human minds, and assuming Caprica doesn't end with a massive wave of amnesia, the BSG characters should know this from history class. So they are as human as anyone else. Why the hell are even they considered robots by any criteria except Karel Capek's?
      • Well, they're still hulking metal monstrosities. Also, it would seem that the fact about uploaded human minds never becomes public knowledge, and it's quite possible that the only ones to know will be dead before the war breaks out.
      • In BSG there was a pretty clear distinction between the "skin jobs" which were physically, biologically, psychologically, and basically in every other possible way human other than their mystical reincarnation abilities; and the "hulking metal monstrosities" which even the skin jobs kept as mindless slaves. There's really no reason the word "Cylon" would be used for both, unless it's in the same way that "Colonial" can be used for anything from a person to a starship - but then again, I don't remember any debates in the show over whether it was fair to let the Vipers be "forced into combat" by their human pilots!
  • On Lie to Me, a cop plants a gun on a teen he mistakenly shot while chasing another suspect. The FBI wants Lightman to withhold his findings and stand by as the teen (who was paralyzed in the shooting and subsequent fall) is falsely charged with attempted murder because the same cop is undercover, rooting out suspected terrorists within the ranks of the police. Lightman proves that the cop misled the FBI: he'd already uncovered everything they needed to take down the terrorists but said nothing because he was angry about the friendly-fire death of his daughter in combat.
  • JAG:
    • A soldier in Iraq was charged with killing an unarmed, surrendering insurgent on camera. Lt. Vukovic examines the crime scene and finds the insurgent was actually trying to detonate a hidden cache of explosives.
    • Rabb debates breaking attorney-client privilege to inform on a client he suspects is selling stealth fighter-jet paint coating (privilege doesn't cover a planned crime, only a crime already committed). After breaking the privilege, he faces disbarment charges when the missing coat of paint is found on the base. Fortunately, his boss, Admiral Chegwidden does not have to censure him for making a difficult decision once he finds out it was the client's son who stole the coating, validating his assumption while essentially making him wrong about the facts of what he reported and giving the admiral leeway to find he was not at fault.
  • The District had a white plainclothes officer shoot and kill a black armed undercover cop after he chased off some punks trying to rob him. The officer claims the undercover pointed his gun at him but the strong suggestion that race played a factor in his judgement call (and 2 previous unrelated incidents where a white cop mistakenly shot a black cop under similar circumstances) leaves many in doubt about his story. Until the police locate one of the youths the undercover chased off, who confirms that he pointed his gun before getting shot and everyone agrees they need to train officers to identify themselves sooner during tense situations.
  • Subverted twice on The Practice: On 2 occasions, one of the attorneys was defending an old friend for making a questionable judgement call, only to find out in private that the defendant had ulterior motives and was just using their friendship to get a good defense. As they were bound by attorney-client privilege not to disclose the new information, they still had to present the original argument with a straight face to the jury:
    • Rebecca defends a childhood friend, an off-duty cop who shot an armed stranger he believed was going to rob a convenience store. She digs up dirt on the victim including a murder charge that was dropped on a technicality. The murder victim in that case was an old friend of the defendant's: he killed the suspect out of revenge, then planted a gun on him to make it look like a robbery.
    • Jimmy defends an old school buddy who was being sued after he outed an HIV-positive subordinate of his out of fear he might infect other co-workers. During their conversations, the defendant reveals that he was a homophobe who was glad that the employee's hostile working conditions prompted him to resign.
  • On Judging Amy, Amy has to decide on the custody of a boy in a coma. Lots of folks think the boy has faith-healing powers and they touch him to get cured of their ailments. The Government has raised eyebrows about the unsanitary conditions of the transfer of germs from visitors day in and day out but the public strongly believes in the boy's powers and Amy will catch heat if she rules in favor of the government's motion. The Government, fearing the negative press, drops their motion, giving Amy no choice but to rule in favor of the family and taking all the political heat for it.
  • The short-lived TV series First Monday about Supreme Court decisions used this trope regularly whenever the difficult decision of finding in favor of the constitution was made to seem like a defendant was getting Off on a Technicality or a sleazy individual was getting away with something for which There Should Be a Law.
    • A doctor gives his patient's blood to a police investigator who couldn't get a warrant for the suspect's DNA, pitting the need to get a serial rapist off the streets against doctor-patient privilege. The rapist's girlfriend gives the police a lawfully-obtained sample of his DNA in the form of his toothbrush.
    • The CIA challenges the publishing of a book that contains confidential trade craft secrets that could potentially endanger the CIA's mission but the publisher argues the First Amendment trumps the need for secrecy. The CIA also gets one of the justices disqualified from ruling on the case because she would have ruled in their favor. The Justices theorize the book is really a full of Blatant Lies meant to fool the CIA's enemies and the court challenge was designed to drum up publicity for it. However, they can't know for certain if this isn't part of some bigger plan by the CIA who wants them to think they're ruling against the CIA's interest so they Take a Third Option and drop the case altogether, ceding to the lower court ruling.
  • Parodied on Sparks, when Alonzo Sparks has to go up against his old law professor, who made fun of his stuttering, even nicknaming him "Porky Pig". Nervousness causes his stutter to come back, until the professor makes the mistake of pissing him off, which motivates him to speak perfectly. Midway through this closing argument, the judge gets word of another case that already made the decision, and says the whole thing is "moot", to Alonzo's protest.
  • Frequently on Supernatural, usually in the form of whether to let someone who is doing bad things against their will (e.g., a werewolf) go, or kill them. The person usually dies or makes some sort of Heroic Sacrifice by episode's end.
    • Well, surviving an episode of Supernatural if you're not one of the brothers pans out at around 20%, and even being one of the protagonists only pushes it up into the low 90s. In one case where the trope is averted (and a werewolf actually wanders off into the sunset) they both pause and look around expectantly as if waiting for the last body to fall from a closet, and you can't really blame them.

    Video Games 
  • Averted in Dragon Age II - no matter what stance you take in the overarching Mage vs Templar plot points, even a neutral Hawke has to pick a side once Anders blows up the Chantry, who, whilst governing both sides contains one of the few Reasonable Authority Figures in the game. There is absolutely no way to avoid this.
    • In a way its still played straight. In the end, regardless of whether you sided with Templars or Mages, you still have to kill both Orsino and Meredith when the former uses blood magic to turn into a Flesh Golem and the latter goes insane due to her sword made of Lyrium.
    • Until the aversion comes at the end, however, it's played straight when it comes to the complaints of the Mages. Their complaints are never actually seriously addressed, because most of their arguments are "disqualified" for extenuating reasons. Anders, their primary advocate, is possessed by Justice and is portrayed as irrational, with even freedom advocate Isabela mostly brushing him off, so players can conveniently write him off and ignore anything he says as the words of a crazy abomination. The strongest argument the Mages have, that the Templars treat all Mages the same way and are willing to punish the innocent along with the guilty, is brushed off by Fenris "shifting the burden of proof", and almost every Mage you meet is an insane blood mage trying to kill you. Well, at least pro-Mage players can have their points addressed with Merrill... oh wait, she conveniently turns out to accidentally unleash a Pride Demon on her clan in Act 3. Well, never mind anything she says then.
  • The central themes of Final Fantasy X and it's sequel, Final Fantasy X-2. In the original, there is an active debate in-game about whether or not it's right to sacrifice people in order to temporarily bring the rest of the world peace. Near the end of the game, the characters find a workaround to the Vicious Cycle, but it will still cause the deaths of two of the major protagonists. Word of God states that this was done intentionally, in order to show The Hero's growth from being selfish to selfless. However, in the sequel, a similar situation comes up and a character offers to sacrifice himself in order to defeat the Big Bad of X-2. Yuna vehemently opposes this idea, stating that she is sick of watching friends die or fade away, and that she does not want to fight battles where "we have to lose in order to win." Furthermore, the aforementioned sacrificed hero gains a chance to be reborn in this game, should the player meet certain requirements, providing no resolution to the overall debate.
  • Done deliberately and with severe repercussions in Mass Effect. In the second game, Tali's loyalty mission has you defending her from a charge of treason. In the course of seeking evidence of her innocence, you find a recording revealing that her father was responsible for the crimes she's charged with. She asks you not to use the evidence (which will render her father the worst criminal in quarian history), even though it means permanent exile from her people. You can either use it, withhold it and see her exiled from the Migrant Fleet, or Take a Third Option (with enough Paragon/Renegade) and shame the Admirality Board into backing down. If you don't take the third option, it becomes impossible to make peace between the quarians and the geth, because you'll have given the warmongers on the board evidence to back their position.
    • The geth/quarian conflict that occurs in Mass Effect 3 definitely plays out this way. Towards the end, you're forced to choose between one side or the other, with the side you don't pick being completely and utterly destroyed, essentially leading that race to extinction. However, depending on your choices in the previous game and during the Rannoch arc in this one, you may get to Take a Third Option where both races survive and even make long-term peace. There's a bit of Guide Dang It involved in this, but generally if you keep picking options throughout the series that promote the belief that there can be peace between the two races, it's not too hard to unlock.
  • Persona 4: The Central Theme is about "reaching out for the truth", and contantly says that ignoring an Awful Truth, no matter how difficult or painful, is never the right hting. And yet, virtually everything that might classify as "a complaint against society" conveniently remains unquestioned and unchallenged. Japanese society tends to favor the group over the individual, but a lot of complaints lobbied at said society are perfectly valid, but the narrative avoids addressing them. For example, Yukiko dislikes being forced to inherit her family's inn: turns out, what she really was worried about was having to do it all alone. The issue of not being able to choose her own job is thus not really addressed at all. Rise dislikes being seen as a media lust object and all the hassle that comes with pop stardom: turns out, she secretly enjoys being in the spotlight and goes back to the industry when it becomes clear she might be replaced. Her objectification is written off as something she can just deal with by accepting the constructed lust object as "herself". Yumi has a complaint about her father selfishly abandoning his wife and child. This is never addressed, because her father ends up dying in the hospital. Yumi decides to live up to her name and "bear fruit" by dropping out of the drama club; the narrative avoids assessing her father's behavior at all by casting Yumi's misgivings as selfish. And the crowning example, there's a character in the game who has a lot of complaints about how impossible it is to be rewarded for your hard work in the current job system if you aren't talented. Whether or not these complaints are accurate is never really addressed, because who is it making these complaints? A psychotic serial killer who just uses it as justification for an insane plan to turn the world into fog-brained Shadows. Thus, his complaints about society can conveniently avoid being debated by the players, since they come out of a psychotic man-child's mouth.

    Western Animation 
  • In the third season finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender , Aang spends a considerable amount of time agonizing over whether he can bring himself to kill Ozai in order to save the world. However, he avoids the whole thing by using a technique that was never hinted at previously to make him unable to firebend anymore and makes it a non-issue.
    • Also applies to the Lost Aesop in "The Waterbending Master", in which Katara's necklace allows her to join Master Paku's class.
      • Though that one's only an in-story debate and switch; from the audience's perspective, the eponymous master is clearly being a Jerk Ass from the start.
    • The existence of Jet and the Freedom Fighters could have raised an interesting question about vigilantes and tough decisions in a wartime setting, when Jet attacked an old fire nation man. However, he soon jumps off the slippery slope by nearly flooding an entire village with allies still inside it.
  • The primary antagonists of The Legend of Korra (Book 1), the Equalists, are a radical political movement with the aim of taking down Benders in order to make the world more equal for Non-Benders. Which actually has some root in reason, but once we see that they are willing to use brutal terrorism in order to achieve their end, the whole political debate is thrown away and they become an evil terrorist cult.
  • The second season of Justice League Unlimited raised some serious questions about how much power a league of superheroes should be allowed to have, and whether or not the U.S. government was justified in trying to restrain them, but those questions were more or less pushed aside when it turned out that Lex Luthor was secretly provoking the conflict with sinister intentions... and Brainiac was manipulating Lex the entire time. Word of God admits that this was due to not wanting to come off as too much of an Author Tract... considering Civil War, it's hard not to say they may have had a point. At the least, they had Green Arrow try to provide an 'answer'.. Word of God stated they couldn't think of a way to resolve the plot on it's own, so they had a Conflict Killer happen.
    • The last season of the series shows the League has been given military garrison and regularly has checks from members of the US Government now, and the members of the group agreed they need limitations (like the not keeping a super-zappo-laser on the Watchtower). So yeah, the show didn't skirt the issue and found a reasonable solution - at least for the Americans.
    • From the Justice League episode A Better World we have Batman debating with his Justice Lords counterpart whether the JLords' fascist regime is "right". JLord Batman argues "We've made a world where no eight year old boy will ever lose his parents because of some punk with a gun!", causing JLeague Bats to concede. Then in a later scene JLeague Batman manages to convince his counterpart to change his methods... by exploiting his Daddy Issues. The writers admitted this was because they couldn't come up with a compelling counterargument.
  • South Park is pretty fond of its Spoof Aesops and its Straw Hypocrites. The episode can be 20 minutes of straight up Flame Bait, but once Stan's given his "I've learned something today..." speech, the story pretty much succumbs to the Rule of Funny.
  • Batman Beyond: Shriek temporarily released a high-pitch frequency pulse throughout Gotham, causing chaos by making speaking incomprehensible and threatened a repeat performance using a more powerful pulse that would kill everyone unless Batman gave himself up to him. Terry wrestled with the morality of sacrificing one life for many, versus the loss his friends and loved ones would experience, and the disgust of sacrificing himself for the ungrateful populace of Gotham, who side with Shriek and insist Batman was at fault and should give in to his demand. Terry figures out Shriek is using two giant towers as a tuning fork and confronts him at his base of operations, destroying the towers in the process. Bruce asks him at the end if Terry would have given himself up had he not figured out where Shriek was and Terry evades the question, telling him to focus on their repair of the batsuit.
  • Superman: The Animated Series: Superman ends up on a planet where Kryptonian criminals Jax-Ur and Mala have taken over the native aliens and ruling them like gods and executing anyone who protests their rule. The two are cordial to Superman and try to paint a picture of them improving the aliens' lives via technology and industry but Superman learns from one of them, Cetea, that the pair were about to execute the former leaders of their planet. Despite Cetea's plea for help, Superman is hesitant to take them on directly because Jax-Ur and Mala have been cordial to him and of the damage & destruction that would ensue from a Kryptonian vs. Kryptonian brawl. This is resolved when Cetea, recognizing that this isn't his homeworld, leads Superman to a secret factory for an invading robot army that will be sent to Earth upon completion and when Jax-Ur and Mala take Superman into deep space to send him into a black hole, and he fights them there, ending up with both of them getting sucked into the hole. He points out the trope at the end, noting that the aliens re-taught him the lesson that evil triumphs when good men do nothing.
  • Happens in Ben 10: Alien Force with the first appearance of Alien X. The main characteristic of the alien being that it has godlike power but can act in even the slightest manner (like walking) if its internal personalities agree to do so (which they near never do). When Ben is added into the debate it means he'd logically become all powerful because every one of their deadlocks would be broken with what Ben decided to do but it becomes obvious that suddenly start agreeing... to do nothing in opposition to anything Ben says. When Ben calls them out on this saying that the compassionate personality should want to save lives and the aggressive personality should want to punish evil... compassion starts crying and they completely avoid responding to Ben's complaint.
  • Teen Titans plays this for laughs at the end of one episode, where a supervillain escapes into the world of television, inadvertently causing TV to literally rot people's brains. The apparent danger of watching too much television is pointed out by Robin at the end of the episode... except if it weren't for Beast Boy's extensive knowledge of TV, they would never have stopped the villain.
    Raven: So... there really isn't a lesson here.
    Cyborg: Yep! It was all completely meaningless!
    Cue Everybody Laughs Ending.

Death by MaterialismMorality TropesDesignated Evil
Convenient MiscarriageWriter Cop OutDeus ex Machina
Death ThrowsJust for PunDeface of the Moon
Bait-and-Switch TyrantBait and SwitchDiscriminate and Switch

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