Lesser of Two Evils

"The lesser of two evils is still evil. And the enemy of my enemy is not my friend."

The hero is in a situation with two unpleasant alternatives and no other options are available to him. Begrudgingly, he holds to his moral code and chooses the lesser of two evils.

Compare Black and Gray Morality, when those who are technically the "good guys" are the lesser evil.

Not to be confused with A Lighter Shade of Black, which at least provides a side to root for. (Those stories usually involve a villain's P.O.V. fighting the other side.)


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Last Exile: Fam, the Silver Wing: Liliana joins Luscinia and his plans after realizing that even though he is bent on conquering the world and killed her father, killing him will only makes things worse since his death will lead to a massive civil war in Ades over his position and the Exile nations will use that war to their advantage to grab power.

  • In one Carl Barks story, Donald Duck chooses to leap into a pool of sharks rather than confront Daisy and her sewing friend about the crochets he made. He cites this trope word to word.
  • Defied in The Boondocks, when Huey is knocked on his behind by his reflection for daring to side with a Democrat(John Kerry) just because he is slightly better than his Republican opponent (George W Bush).

    Fan Fiction 
  • Dungeon Keeper Ami: The Shining Concord Empire, Avatar of All Light, King Albreight, and many other lesser overworld powers breifly ally with Empress Mercury for the battle of Crowned Death's high temple. This is actually a case of subversion, as Mercury is a heroine. However, most of the lightworld powers involved do not know or do not acknowledge her as a hero and see it as Pragmatic Villainy on her part- she was at war with Crowned Death; and, having discovered the massive, mobile fortress, needs their help to destroy it.
  • An Unsung Song: To help the Capitol or District Fourteen?
  • The Immortal Game: This is pretty much the justification for allying with Discord in order to defeat Titan. As Celestia puts it, they've dealt with the former before, and besides, "better the devil you know".
  • The Pony POV Series: At one point during the Epilogue timeline (about five hundred years prior to the "present" of the Dark World arc), Grogar returned from his imprisonment and went to war with Discord for control of Equestria. During this war, many of Discord's enemies allied with Grogar, as they figured that his "perfect order" would be preferable to Discord's "perfect chaos". On the other hand, some did remain with Discord because they saw him as the lesser evil.
  • Queen Of Shadows: Jade, stuck in the life of the Queen of the Shadowkhan, knows that she's expected to restart the paused war with the human territories of Japan, and if she doesn't she'll blow her cover. So she devises a war plan that she hopes will minimize human casualties and give the heroes she believes are at Tobe a chance to defeat the Shadowkhan.
  • Castlevania: Nocturne of Ruin: When Walter Bernhard is resurrected and intent on taking back his power base from Dracula, Alucard quickly decides that it would be better for Walter to die and Dracula to remain in power; as evil as Dracula is, he kills with definitive planning and is nowhere near as depraved as Walter, who kills people for fun and plays sick games with his victims.
  • In Origin Story, this is Tony Stark's initial justification for the Registration Act. Toward the end of the story, he no longer really believes this, and has come to the idea that it was a choice that should never have been made.
  • In The Vow, when Lord Shen takes over Gongmen City, he turns the approaching engagement party of his former fiancé Lady Lianne and Lord Juan (whom he murders) into a trap for the invited nobility of China. He forces Lianne to help in springing the trap so that he can force the nobility to support him in his conquest of China. When the time comes for that, and the Furious Five and Po are imprisoned, Lianne reluctantly goes along with the plan, knowing that should Jade fail to release the heroes, then the success of Shen's plan would mean the least amount of casualties. Fortunately, Jade releases the heroes who then free the nobility.
  • In Cissnei's Path, a Final Fantasy VII fanfic, Crimson (Cissnei) justifies this as the reason they shouldn't kill Rufus Shinra in Rocket Town unless absolutely necessary. Rufus is smart and rational enough to keep his priorities straight, whereas if he dies then either Scarlet or Heideggar would get the Company. Both are war-mongers and having complete control of the company would be giving them a blank check to create weapons of destruction and attack places that gave the group shelter.

  • Freddy vs. Jason. With two nigh-indestructible killing machines on the loose in Springwood, the heroes pit them against each other and root for the guy who just wants teenagers to keep their booze and premarital sex out of Camp Crystal Lake, rather than the sadistic child murderer who can hunt people anywhere in the world so long as they're asleep. (The big irony here is, Jason's kill count in the movie was higher than Freddy's. Still, it's a valid point.)
  • Used as a Chekhov's Gag in Master and Commander when Jack forces Stephen to choose between the lesser of two weevils. It sets the whole Command Roster apart from Stephen laughing uproariously. Gets a Call Back later in the movie when Jack has to sacrifice a man who went overboard to keep the Surprise from being dragged under by debris from a broken mast.
  • X-Men: The Last Stand: Charles Xavier invokes this trope when speaking to Logan with regards to the psychic blocks he placed over the Phoenix without Jean Grey's knowledge or consent.
    Professor X: I had a terrible choice to make; I chose the lesser of two evils.

  • Roughly half the plot of The Dresden Files consists of dealing with these. In particular, "Gentleman" Johnny Marcone (a very powerful, cunning, and ruthless gangster) and Lara Raith (the de facto leader of one of the three Vampire Courts) fully qualify as evil despite both having moments of sympathy, but Harry Dresden and co. end up allied with them more often than not, if only because they're forces of stability who have no use for the wide-scale destruction many of the real villains have planned. Harry still doesn't trust either of them near as far as he could throw themnote .
  • A major theme of the Wheel of Time series is people having to learn to work together against a common enemy: many, if not most, of the various nations, organisations and political factions are morally questionable at best, but against an Eldritch Abomination trying to undo reality you take what allies you can get.
  • In Vorkosigan Saga, Prince Serg is so outrageously psychopathic that his father considers it necessary to both start an unprovoked war and then lose it deliberately just so Prince Serg and his supporters can be killed in the process.
  • In Kill Decision, Odin uses this to defend his tipping off an insurgent leader to an impending airstrike, explaining that the guy is a moderate compared to his rivals and would-be successors and would fight other foreign extremists and drug dealers once the West gets out of the way.
  • In The Man in the High Castle, at least some factions of the Nazi Party are depicted as more reasonable than the leadership, and oppose its genocidal plans such as wiping out the Japanese. And that reasonable faction is Heydrich and the SS, who already are genocidal maniacs in their own right. Faced with the Sadistic Choice of either supporting the SS rise to power or watching his homeland be exterminated, Mr. Tagomi has a bit of a Heroic BSOD moment.
  • Noob has this as Non-Player Character Töne Förk's backstory. He had the choice between getting captured and possibly killed by the men of a guy who wanted his throne and seeking help from his enemies. He chose the latter and now considers himself a Child of Two Worlds.
  • Cray from The Hunger Games. Katniss notes that, despite his preying on young women, Cray is nothing compared to Romulus Thread.
  • This is the central theme of The Witcher. No matter which side wins, in the end one of two evils prevails. This is the main reason Geralt prefers to not get involved in such conflicts. Geralt himself doesn't believe that there are lesser evils, it's only an excuse people make to justify their bad deeds.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The A-Team, "Curtain Call". As Murdock's condition worsens and Face and Tawnia still haven't returned with medical supplies, Hannibal tells B.A. that he's going out to look for them, and if he can't find them, he'll find Decker instead and bring him back. The sheer fact that Hannibal thinks bringing the team's archnemesis directly to their hiding spot is the better option (and that B.A. doesn't argue) is a big sign of how bad the situation has become.
  • Seven Days: Let the world be destroyed, or give the psycho the keys to the time machine?
  • The Finder: A mafia boss hired the heroes to find a voodoo doll to end a curse against him. The trope was invoked out of fear an Eviler Than Thou boss would take over.
  • Subverted in Supernatural. Lucifer the archangel is released in season 5 and starts the Apocalypse, and the Winchesters are stuck in a battle between Hell and Heaven. The demonic armies want to destroy the Earth and take over Heaven, although Lucifer plans on killing them too, while the angelic bureaucracy is barely better, being a corrupt military theocracy who want to bring about Paradise and find the slaughter of half of humanity in the ensuing fight between Lucifer and Michael acceptable losses. The Winchesters are too powerless to kill either of them, and after being stuck between two bad options for an entire season Dean almost gives in to Heaven's demands, but the team pulls him back and they continue looking for more options.

  • This is a focal point to the plot of Tales of Symphonia. The main character, Lloyd, is an idealist. His friend, Colette, must sacrifice herself in order to save her world. Most of this game's struggle involves finding a third option.
  • In the first two Golden Sun games, the object is to restore alchemy to the world. Though the main characters understand that this will bring war and strife back to the world, they do this out of necessity because otherwise, the world will decay.
  • In the second chapter of the original Age of Empires III, after Stuart Black is kidnapped, John Black, Kanyenke and Nonakhee are involved in the Seven Years' War. They have to choose between the Britons and the French. They choose the French side.
  • In Starcraft Brood War, Jim Raynor and his allies side with Kerrigan against the Earth Directorate forces poised to conquer the sector. This is a case where the good guys misjudged which evil was the lesser one. Or did they? No one can know now as the UED simply didn't get the chance to prove themselves to be better or worse rulers than the Koprulu Sector's natives.
  • Legacy of Kain: Raziel allows himself to be absorbed into the Reaver rather than be the Elder God's captive for the rest of eternity. He's a prisoner either way, but one of his prisons can do more good than the other.
  • In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Snake tries to stop Liquid from taking over the System. He would have total control over pretty much the whole world. Given how much of a nut he's proven himself to be, the protagonists feel that at least The Patriots give the world more stability than Liquid would.
  • In the second Baldur's Gate game, the player at one point must ally with either the local guild of ruthless thieves and murderers, or the invading unholy vampires. Every good character, even the paladin Keldorn, is grudgingly willing to ally themselves with the thieves, but many leave the party if the player goes for the vampires instead. Though it is possible to go with either, the former is clearly regarded as this trope in the game.
  • In Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire there are two evil organizations, Team Aqua and Team Magma. The player opposes one (whose plans threatened to destroy the world) and allies with the other (who is trying to prevent it). Which is which depends on which game. That doesn't mean that your allies aren't evil however, they just aren't currently involved in any evil plans (This is emphasized in the third game, Pokémon Emerald.) Thus, in this case, the Lesser of Two Evils is the team you ally with.
  • Kid Icarus: Uprising: As much as Viridi is convinced that Humans Are Bastards, she nonetheless considers the Underworld Army to be even worse.

    Western Animation 
  • Transformers Prime: Siding with Megatron against Unicron.
  • Midnight Patrol: The heroes decided the Nightmare Prince was this to Count Bubba Bonebreaker.
  • In Pinky and the Brain, the Brain had an Arch-Enemy named Snowball. Described by Pinky as a "genetically enhanced evil hamster dedicated to... well, evil," Snowball also wanted to Take Over the World, but his plans for it once he did so were much worse than Brain's.
  • The Simpsons:
    • On the episode "Love Is A Many Strangled Thing" revealed that Homer's strangling Bart has actually been keeping some of Bart's worst tendencies in check. However the same thing happened on Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie where Homer and Marge gave Bart a legitimate punishment only to let him off the hook. When this happens again in Postcards from the Wedge causing Homer and Marge to let Bart fend for himself, it resulted in Bart attempting to destroy Springfield Elementary to get their attention.
    • In "Sideshow Bob Roberts" Sideshow Bob is running for mayor opposite "Diamond Joe" Quimby. Lisa and Bart do their best to try and make sure Quimby is reelected over Bob, with the former quoting this word for word.

    Web Originals 
  • Marc Mues: Invoked in the eponymous video series where two horrible musicians are compared to each other.