...outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.
Sometimes, there is no easy choice to make. No matter what you do, something is going to go badly for someone. The choice of who to save and who to let die often falls on The Hero
, and when it does, there's only one choice to make. Whether he has to save the world, the country, or the city, he almost always has to let go of his best friend or Love Interest
in the process. However, this trope is averted nearly as often as it's played straight, especially among Anti Heroes
who are willing to screw over the whole world for the ones they love.
Of course, it isn't always The Hero
who has to make the decision. Monarchs or generals may be forced to sacrifice large numbers of troops or citizens For The Greater Good
(former trope name). Well Intentioned Extremists
and Knight Templars
often use this as a justification for their actions; they're more than willing to kill dozens if they think it will save thousands.
In ethical philosophy, this is also known as Utilitarianism, of which Ethical Hedonism
is one of the most common and basic forms.
Keep in mind, "many" and "few" are relative. The most important part is just that someone has to be sacrificed to save significantly more. And although it is an old concept, the phrase itself is much Newer Than They Think
, the Trope Namer
being The Wrath of Khan
Compare Heroic Sacrifice
, Cold Equation
and Sadistic Choice
. If the protagonist is being asked to sacrifice themselves
, this is likely to be What Is One Man's Life In Comparison?
. For the more morally gray versions, compare Utopia Justifies the Means
, Totalitarian Utilitarian
and A Million Is a Statistic
. A catchphrase of every other Hive Mind
The Small Steps Hero
either doesn't believe in this
or finds it inseparable from everyday acts of kindness
. An Ideal Hero
will Take a Third Option
. See also Friend or Idol Decision
. When the sacrifice turns out to have been inadequate, or the wrong
people are sacrificed through misunderstanding or inadequate information, "What Have I Done
?" is the usual reaction.
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Anime and Manga
- Sailor Moon's refusal to do this in the S series is what enraged Uranus and Neptune near the end, as Sailor Moon couldn't stand sacrificing Hotaru to save the world (she didn't have to, but the conflict of one person vs. the world was brought up at least somewhat).
- In Gurren Lagann using this trope as a mantra is why Simon is happy with the series ending despite the heart-rendingly painful price he had to pay to save the universe. It perfectly shows how strong and heroic Simon has become. It's also extremely Japanese.
- Shirou Emiya's father, Kiritsugu, possessed this principle and we get to see it in action in the prequel, Fate/Zero. The contradiction in this ideal is also exposed by the corrupted Grail when he gets shown an illusion where he has to save either the many or the few until he has killed 498 people for his two most beloved people.
- The problem with his specific methods was that he didn't try to find alternative solutions.
- His alternate solution was to get access to a perfect, omnipotent Reality Warper wish-granting artifact to save everyone. If the Grail hadn't been corrupted, then likely everything would have turned out much better.
- Mobile Suit Gundam Wing is capped off by Zechs Merquise and Treize Khushrenada trying to bring world peace by starting a war so utterly horrifying and pointless that humanity will gladly move to the negotiating table. Both are perfectly fine with being Silent Scapegoats for this cause, but it still weighs on them; at one point Treize utterly averts A Million Is a Statistic by giving the exact number of people who have died so far. Unfortunately, the lesson doesn't quite take until The Movie, where Relena (and, in the Special Edition, Dorothy) finally get the civilians to realize that they can't just Hold Out for a Hero forever.
- In Watchmen, Veidt's final plan is to kill millions of people in order to trick everyone else into world peace.
- The League of Shadows, led by Ra's Al Ghul, has been around for centuries wiping out any civilizations that they think have become too corrupt, in order to stop them from spreading their corruption to the rest of the world.
- In Gold Digger, almost all of the atrocities Dreadwing has committed (mass murder, torture, rape, enslavement, etc.) can be placed directly at the feet of Ancient Gina. She needed a pawn to help her build the Infinity Engine, a machine that will assist in stopping the undead previous universe from wiping out the current one. Therefore, she indirectly gave Dreadwing the Time Raft to take revenge on T'Mat and her council and his obsession over the device would be his undoing as he eventually was blasted millions of years into the past where Ancient Gina had him work on the Infinity Engine.
- Parodied in Runaways, where a villain is trying to justify an attempt to exterminate the entire human race "for the greater good," and quotes the Star Trek example as "proof." The heroine is not impressed and says "You're Insane!."
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the Trope Namer, specifically the scene where Spock explains his Heroic Sacrifice.
- Ironically inverted in Insurrection where Picard argues against relocating 600 people from a planet so the Federation can analyse the planet's immortality-granting radiation to save billions of lives. Still, one can argue that Spock would not be in favour of the mass-kidnapping and theft we see attempted here, especially when the information comes from people allied with those who would be doing the killing of billions.
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. As the damaged Nautilus is sinking to the bottom of the ocean, Captain Nemo must make a decision.
Ishmael: Aft bulkhead open. Pump valves jammed!
Nemo: Seal it off!
Ishmael: There are men in there!
Nemo: For the greater good, we must seal it!
- The antagonist in 2012 does this. It turns into Strawman Has a Point, considering that he believes some (or many) people can be sacrificed to save the human race.
- The Matrix sequel has Neo forced to make the choice of returning to The Source, and allowing the Matrix to be re-booted, saving the lives of everyone still jacked in, or leave and save Trinity from the Agent she's fighting while letting the Matrix crash, killing pretty much all that's left of humanity. He decides to Take a Third Option.
- The Polish short film Most (which means "Bridge"), in which a man ends up sacrificing his son by lowering a drawbridge to prevent a train crash.
- Averted in Johnny Mnemonic. The data Johnny is carrying inside his head can save millions of lives. However, Johnny spends a significant portion of the movie putting his own life ahead of everybody else, as well as initially rejecting every proposal to retrieve the data because there is a chance that doing so could kill him or leave him with significant brain damage (even though he would die if he doesn't get the data out of his head, anyway). In the end, Johnny is convinced to go through with an attempt at removing the data from his head NOT because he'd be helping millions of other lives but because it's pointed out to him that that there being a chance that retrieving the data would kill him would also mean there is a chance he'd survive, whereas Johnny's other possible fate leaves him no such chance.
- Spoken word for word by Sentinel Prime in Transformers: The Dark of the Moon. This time, though, it's in a much more sinister context. Essentially, Sentinel uses this as justification for enslaving mankind to rebuild Cybertron (by "the many" he means all Cybertronians; he couldn't care less about humanity). Doubles also as an Actor Allusion, as Sentinel is voiced by Leonard Nimoy.
- In Star Trek Into Darkness, Spock, The Trope Namer, tells the Enterprise to leave him to die in order to protect the Enterprise and uphold the Prime Directive during the prologue. Kirk later sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise.
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire: There's a short scene where the Ulysses has a hole blown in it and the Engineers are seen scrambling to escape. Audrey closes the section off when there's at least one more guy stuck in there and he presumably drowned. More of the sub would have been flooded with water if she hadn't done it, and a good portion of the staff there, like the gunners, had already died when the blast hit.
- Deconstructed in Atlas Shrugged, due to Ayn Rand's Author Tract. Examples of altruistic ideals turning into spectacular failures abound, but a special mention goes to the 20th Century Motor Company of Starnesville. After the company passed from the founder to his children and they reorganized the plant to a pay system of "from each according to ability, to each according to need," it turned into a nightmare trainwreck for the employees before collapsing in on itself. This inspired John Galt to abandon his revolutionary electro-static motor and begin his quest to spur "the men of the mind" all over the world to strike and bring the end of the world ruled by altruist, Collectivist morality.
- The Dresden Files gives us at least two subversions where the main protagonist refuses to put the many ahead of the few. First in Grave Peril Harry rescues Susan from Red Court vampires, even knowing that his actions will trigger a war with the Red Court. He does it again in Changes when his daughter is kidnapped by the Red Court during a cease-fire. This time around someone directly asks him to consider the needs of the many, but Harry makes it clear he'll let the entire world burn before letting the vamps hurt his daughter.
- From The Bible, John 11:49-50: "And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not."
- Similarly, in The Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 4:2: "It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief."
- In the third Pendragon novel, Bobby has to choose between letting the Hindenburg burn, killing a few dozen people, or saving it and letting Germany win WWII. He almost makes the wrong choice, sending him into a temporary Heroic BSOD.
- In Crown of Slaves Berry Zilwicki risks her life to save the occupants of a captured slave ship, reasoning that one life against several thousand is "no contest, the way I see things."
- The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas almost poses this as a question: If you lived in a Utopia that bought the happiness of the Many with the utter suffering of one child, would you accept it, or walk away?
Live Action TV
- In the musical Starship by Starkids, this is a major philosophy on the Bug homeworld. Bug also sacrifices his human body in the end to save the rest of the Starship rangers, finally understanding what it means.
- Warhammer 40,000: This trope is played straight by various factions...
- Imperium of Man: Sacrifice plenty of Imperial Guard to win back a planet or successfully defending one. In some cases sacrifice the planet for the millions of other planets...ok lets just say sacrifice a few billion for even more trillions.
- Eldar: They flip this trope, sacrifice the billions of non-eldar for the few eldar.
- Tyranids: Subvert this by a longshot, lose billions but in the end they win and eat the planet dead and all. And those they lose? They just eat their corpses and recycle the biomass.
- Tau: Their main philosophy, the so-called "Greater Good", is essentially this. All Tau are expected to act in benefit to as many of their kind as possible, and screwing over others to benefit yourself is seen as one of the greatest sins you could commit. While personal ambition is a sin, ambition on a galaxy-wide scale is considered a virtue.
- Mass Effect 2's Arrival DLC has Commander Shepard ram an asteroid into a Mass Relay. The resultant explosion wipes out the entire system it's in, obliterating 305,000 colonists and Shepard will be put on trial for his/her actions. Justification? It delays a Reaper invasion, which would have wiped out all sentient life in the entire galaxy.
- A recurring theme in Mass Effect 3: If the galaxy is to survive, nobody can afford to stand by their own grudges (and there are many grudges, going back a thousand years or more) Also subverted multiple times: several leaders are forced to flee from battle, often leaving their own troops to die without them, because their leadership is needed by their people as a whole. At one point Shepard can be forced to choose which of two entire alien races is more worth saving. (Though if a save from the previous games in which certain choices were made is imported Shepard can convince both sides to lay down their arms and make peace.)
- The same reveals that this is the ultimate "logic" behind the Reaper cycle. The Catalyst eventually decided that, since organics and synthetics cannot be made to get along, it is better to harvest all sufficiently intelligent species every 50000 years to prevent a Robot War that could result in destruction so great that no life would survive it.
- In inFAMOUS Cole is faced with the sadists choice of saving the one or the many; his girlfriend Trish or half a dozen doctors who could save many lives themselves. It's a Karma-Moment, so the player gets to decide and is rewarded good or evil karma for a selfless or selfish decision respectively.
- In Alpha Protocol, choosing to save either Madison St. James or a whole room full of innocent people, and the choice between saving Ronald Sung by giving him the assassination plans or saving hundreds of people by foiling a plot to incite nation-wide riots.
- A major theme of Dragon Age: Origins; it shows up in the Redcliffe and Circle quests, the whole concept of the Grey Wardens, and the endgame. The Qun (not so much a race as a "religion" / philosophical movement) is also built on this, to the point where its adherents give up personal names and refer to each other by their role in society. They view their society as a single creature that they must all work to strengthen and protect.
- A recurring theme in Battlefield 3. In one level the player plays a member of a Russian special forces team trying to prevent a nuclear attack in Paris. The team at the beginning discuss that they may come into a firefight with French police, but that it's far more important to stop the nuclear attack than worry about the fate of a few police. Later playing as an American forces they come under fire by Russian military who are basically after the same thing but fight back due to no other choice, the player character later says he held nothing against the Russians and doesn't consider them his enemy despite them killing much of his squad. Near the end of the game it comes in full force when the player character guns down his commanding officer to allow a Russian special forces soldier to escape as the only hope of preventing a nuclear attack.
- The Trope Namer phrase is quoted word for word in the scrolling text on the intro screen to Lemmings. Rather apposite, because the entire gameplay is based on saving a sufficient number of Lemmings on each level.
- This is a recurring theme in Fate/stay night, where the Arc Words appears to be "a hero must choose the people he saves". The only time it has a direct impact on the plot is during the "Heaven's Feel" scenario, when Shirou is given a choice between killing Sakura, the girl he loves (and who has been horribly abused) and allowing her to live and potentially endanger an unknown number of innocent people, although to his knowledge she has not yet harmed anyone and is not certain to do so, or to be unstoppable at a later date if she did go insane. Playing the trope straight leads to a Bad End due to Shirou following his father's path and killing everyone he cares for (with the implication being that he will spend the rest of his life alone and unhappy, going around the world killing innocents like Sakura who are a potential threat to others), whilst attempting to Take a Third Option and save everyone (whilst ultimately unsuccessful and resulting in the deaths of hundreds of innocents) allows him to earn himself a happy ending with the girl he loves.
- In Freefall strip 2162, Florence says, "There are over 450 million robots. There are only fourteen Bowman's wolves. If I have to choose, I have to go with the robots." Florence is a Bowman's wolf and would sacrifice her own race to save the robots.
- Antz, with numerous references to (often morally dubious) actions being made "for the good of the Colony". This eventually gets thrown back in the villain's face when he tries to claim that drowning the entire colony and murdering the Queen is for the good of the colony.
- On South Park, Stan quotes it to his father, claiming it's "from a little book called The Bible." Kyle then corrects him and tells him it's from Wrath of Khan.
- This was Aang's final dilemma in the last episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, when Aang was distraught over the thought of having to kill Fire Lord Ozai in order to save the world, even though his upbringing as an Air Nomad and monk taught him to hold all life as sacred, even the lives of people who might be morally evil. His friends try to brace him for this as best they can, while his past incarnations either agree with them or just say he'll have to stop agonizing and make a decision no matter what. He might have gone through with it if there was NO other choice, but the Lion Turtle gave him a third option.
- Communist countries would often use this. They would export most of their crop rather than use it to feed their own people. In their defense they would say "a few must starve for the sake of the many", and by few they mean a few million people will starve, for the sake of the many billions more who will starve later.
- Many genocides are "justified" with this logic.
- On a more positive note, this is part of the logic behind assassinating a tyrant - kill one obviously evil person (and those loyal to him) so that thousands or even millions may live free of his oppression.
- Terry Pratchett noted that there's a flaw in this logic: "Shoot the dictator and prevent the war? But the dictator is merely the tip of the whole festering boil of social pus from which dictators emerge; shoot him and there'll be another one along in a minute. Shoot him too? Why not shoot everyone and invade Poland?"
- This trope is the rationale behind most, if not all, Heroic Sacrifices.