When called to the carpet for their nefarious actions by the heroes, certain villains will pull the Moral Relativism card and ask some form of this Armor-Piercing Question
. After all, if they don't subscribe to the same moral compass
as the protagonist, and too many people in everyday life have come to use such loaded terms like "evil" and "Hitler/Nazi/Fascist
" to simply mean "scary" or "anything I don't like", who's to say which one of them is really the bad guy?
Characters have all sorts of reasons for bringing up the subjectivity of morality - perhaps they are the Constantly Curious Philosopher
who wants to get to the bottom of things; perhaps they are The Fettered
, acutely aware of the difficulty and complexity of their quest, moral hazards included; and then perhaps they are trying to fundamentally shake
some kind of hero
who believes themselves to be acting in the name of absolute good. This last flavor is by far the most common, and is a favorite tactic of the Straw Nihilist
, the Card-Carrying Villain
, and The Übermensch
who adheres to Blue and Orange Morality
and believes himself Above Good and Evil
On the surface at least, "What is Evil" is a stressingly valid point. Philosophers of morality have, for centuries, struggled with the apparently impossible challenge of objectively proving a "should"
, even as most of us deeply believe that, say, murdering innocent children is objectively wrong. Typically, heroes tend to cling to that exact deep conviction; they don't care for arguing about moral relativism, much like real-life people who see themselves as morally in the right don't care for it
. You could say that this has resulted from aeons of evolutionary pressure on heroes: the ones who stopped to think out the moral conundrums got killed by the Card-Carrying Villain
who realized they could use this to Logic Bomb
heroes. Meanwhile, the heroes who refused to give in to the villain's nihilism - either out of boneheadedness, or out of a belief that fighting for what you believe
in is a worthy enough goal- persevered. Out-of-universe, the typical lack of moral ambiguity in hero/villain conflict may be attributable to writers just not wanting to waste any effort on that issue, for either ideological or pragmatic reasons.
See also Hannibal Lecture
, Well-Intentioned Extremist
, Tautological Templar
, Written by the Winners
. Frequently combined with Above Good and Evil
and (for the illogical) Bad Is Good and Good Is Bad
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Anime & Manga
- Mazinger Z: In the manga version penned by Gosaku Ota, Baron Ashura kidnaps Kouji Kabuto and suggests him joining him/her. When Kouji states he has no interest in serving a criminal, Ashura gets indignant, and angrily utters "good" and "evil" are nothing but concepts made up by humans, and the only true rules that exist in the world are the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest.
- The series Death Note features a protagonist who eliminates evil... by using a magic notebook that causes anyone whose name is written in it to die. He ultimately wants to turn the world into a crime-free utopia and believes anything he does is justified by his noble goal. The main antagonist is a world-famous detective determined to get to the bottom of a suspicious rash of unexplained deaths, and he realizes it's all the work of a supernaturally prolific serial killer who must be stopped at all costs. Both claim to be motivated by a strong sense of justice. Though Word of God says L is actually not motivated by justice at all, he is nonetheless the more heroic of the two, because Kira is hanging out in the deep end of the Knight Templar pool.
- Ryuk, the Shinigami whose notebook Light is using (Ryuk dropped it randomly on Earth for the hell of it and it happened to land at Light's feet) points out early on that when Kira achieves his goal, the only evil person left will be himself. Kira has no idea what Ryuk is talking about, being completely incapable of seeing anything he does, including mass murder, as evil.
- When confronted by the Pharaoh's court in Yu-Gi-Oh! and called evil, Thief King Bakura asks if following their rules would automatically make him good. As the court in question sacrificed his entire home village to make the Millennium Items, he has a point.
- The lyrics to the ending theme song to the second half of the R2 arc of Code Geass are basically an exposition on this very question about what evil and justice are. Appropriately enough, the entire series sets out to answer this very question.
An impure world made of demons, then what is justice? Endure before you question, you wicked flower
Dream of hypocrisy, stare at those wary eyes. Purities and faults, no longer discernible
The light fades, and like a babe, you sleep within the womb of darkness. Solitude is your true love, perhaps your only ally
Each and every one of you, bathed in blood, born into these times. O chosen princes, fighting composes your banquet
Ahh, I am the all-beautiful and omnipotent, mother of love, who gave birth to you. Yet are my breasts nourishing brethren of Hell?
The mark of revelations, what then is the truth behind it? You do not even attempt to fathom and bury them, the seeds of hidden deeds
Double-edged sword, draw your sword at the sword directed at you. And only believe in what you need to protect
Release yourself as the way you are...
- When Pain fights Naruto, he genuinely believes that his terrorist activities, and killing Naruto, will lead to something at least vaguely resembling world peace. When he gets called out for being evil not only does he give a sob story about how life made him as screwed up as he is he poses a simple question. What's Naruto's plan for peace besides killing him? To which our hero does not have an answer.
- In Saint Seiya, Virgo Shaka invokes this when Ikki asks him why is he fighting for the Pope. He is just serving what he considers justice, and there's more than one justice according to him.
- Elmer C. Albatross of Baccano! is a rare positive example. He's kind and charitable to everyone, since he doesn't see any inherent meaning or morality in the universe.
- FLCL runs on this, given that there's no good or evil (only chaos), as both sides are equally corrupt.
- Brick asks Blossom this word-for-word in the fanfiction More Than Human. The actual debate they have, however, is never shown.
- In the Batman: Dark Knight fanfic ''A Piece of Glass, the OC Breech Loader repeatedly comments on how sanity is a case of which side of the glass you are on, and on how concepts like Good and Evil are largely redundant thanks to relying on points of view. While The Joker doesn't fully agree with her, he is clearly amused by her reasoning enough not to kill her.
- In the Blood+ fic Waking Dream, Reeve Roswell outright tells Saya that, as far as he's concerned, there's no such thing as good or evil in the real world, just opposing sides, and that if there was such a thing as evil, then it would be the Red Shield themselves, considering the fact that they keep hounding Diva everywhere she goes without giving her a chance to be happy or try to make up for her mistakes, as well as the fact that Red Shield agents shot his best friend Nathan, who had nothing to do with their war on chiropterans, dead in cold blood. This revelation ends up destroying Saya's faith in the Red Shield, causing her to leave the organization shortly afterwards.
Films — Animation
Films — Live-Action
- Done by the Protagonist, Ash, in Army of Darkness (after shooting his Evil Twin in the face with his boomstick).
Evil!Ash: I'm bad Ash... and you're good Ash! You're a goody little two-shoes! Little goody two-shoes! Little goody two-shoes! (punches Ash) Little goody two-shoes! (punch) Little goody two sho—*BOOM!*
Ash: (standing over his smoking corpse) Good. Bad. I'm the guy with the gun.
- In the director's cut, he's much more direct.
Ash: I ain't that good.
- In A Clockwork Orange when Alex's uncle speaks to him of right and wrong he says, "Come now, you know that's just a matter of words."
- In the 1931 film M, Serial Killer Hans Beckert is pursued by the city's criminal underworld, because the intensive police manhunt is interfering with their business and because they resent police inquiries that imply that they might be associated with a child murderer. When they conduct a mock trial of Beckert, he attacks their sense of moral superiority, declaring that he does what he does because he's haunted by unwanted compulsions he can't resist, while they do what they do because they freely chose crime instead of honest work.
- In Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin plays the title character who is a polygamist and Serial Killer who marries and murders unpleasant wealthy women in order to care for his beloved invalid wife and child. At the end when he's sentenced to death, he gives a speech about how his actions are not so different from those of the world's governments, while they've killed far more than him, and closes by promising "I shall see you all very soon."
- Star Wars
Good is a point of view, Anakin. The Jedi and the Sith are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power. Anakin:
The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves. Palpatine:
And the Jedi don't?
- Anakin uses this argument to justify waltzing into the Jedi Temple and killing all the children. We had already seen that Anakin was perfectly willing to kill indiscriminately if he believed his opponents were truly evil, even before his fall. Once he believed that the Jedi cared only about power, he could justify doing whatever he wanted in pursuit of that same end. Anakin ends up being a surprisingly well-done example of how this trope can cause not-really-all-that-evil people to jump off the deep end.
- Harry Lime's 'cuckoo clock' speech in The Third Man.
- In Vampire in Brooklyn, Maximillian (Eddie Murphy) impersonates preacher Pauly and makes a surprisingly convincing argument that evil is necessary to appreciate good, to the point that everyone ends up singing "Evil is good, evil is good".
- In Animorphs, this is frequently brought up. Yeerks need hosts, hosts need their freedom. Somebody has to lose. Are Yeerks evil because they fulfill their natural function? If that's the case, are humans evil for killing animals for meat?
- In Sword of Truth, the villains of the series (The Imperial Order) use this to justify the murder of entire cities full of people. They reason that they are creating the perfect world, and that anybody who disagrees with them has no place in it.
- In Interview with the Vampire, Lestat puts it succinctly: "Evil is just a point of view."
- Quirrel's argument to Harry Potter in the first novel, as shown in the quote on the top of this page. In the film adaptation, this speech is instead given by Lord Voldemort himself.
- In Graham Greene's The Third Man, the Affably Evil Harry Lime has sold diluted penicillin on the black market, causing many people to die horribly who had believed they were being treated. He famously justifies these actions on a ferris wheel by pointing to all of the "dots" (people) on the group and argues that if there were a financial incentive for rubbing them out, everyone's actions would ultimately just be quibbling over how many dots they were willing to kill before feeling bad about it. Also, Greene was rather a Writer on Board about putting references to Catholicism in his writings, and so has Lime who is Catholic remark that his actions aren't harming anyone's soul and might even be a good deed by sending them to Heaven faster.
- In Bakker's Second Apocalypse Kellhus claims that ruthlessly using and discarding other people for his personal advantage is all right since the people being manipulated are only slaves to circumstance anyway, so it doesn't really matter if they are his slaves instead.
- Jacen Solo from the Star Wars Expanded Universe was taught by a Jedi named Vergere a moral philosophy that rejected traditional notions of the Light and Dark side of the Force; she preferred to think of the Force as impartial and actions a reflection of one's self. This idea spread throughout the Jedi in a more "There is no light or dark side" form until, several books later, the Order was becoming quite aggressive. Luke finally got around to putting down the idea, though Jacen still followed it. Later, it was later retconned that Vergere was actually teaching Sith philosophy, thus robbing Jacen of all his credibility.
- As Lord Vetinari says: "I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people. You're wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides." Unusually for this trope, he's on the same side as the hero. Or at least, Vetinari is more on the side of his city (and the people in it). He isn't really on the same side as the heroes, he just keeps them on the city payroll because they dislike some of the same things he does, and most pertinently because they help keep the city running.
- Vimes said (or thought) something like, "He had heard that good and evil were a matter of perspective, though of course this sort of thing was only said by people in the category traditionally considered 'evil'", in The Fifth Elephant.
- The first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body? has the murderer express a philosophy devoted to this sentiment in a letter he sends to Peter. The character, a Straw Nihilist, views morality as a weakness and hopes for a future in which humans will be cured of guilt and thus in the state he sees as being before the Fall. The letter also somewhat subverts the Motive Rant, since it states quite clearly that ultimately, his only motive was trying to commit the perfect murder.
- Amazingly enough, the fallen preacher Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath is a heroic example. Having discarded his previous, conventional ethical system, he builds a new one, and ideally the reader is to sympathize with him. (For the curious, he keeps all the stuff about not hurting other people, but he now accepts radical farmers' populism and such.)
- From the Humanx Commonwealth universe, in the novel Bloodhype, the Vom is an Eldritch Abomination that travels from planet to planet on the backs of Mind Controlled sentient beings, devouring all life it encounters. During its battle with the Tar-Aiym Guardian and Flinx, it engages in a telepathic conversation with them in which it attempts to rationalize its actions with this exact trope. Their answer: "You're what is traditionally defined as evil, and since we can't reconcile with you, you must die."
- A major theme of Gregory Maguire's Wicked. Near the end of the book, Elphaba attends a dinner party where the guests discuss the meaning of evil, some claiming things like the absence of good, others the moral choice of vice over virtue, or the act of vice over virtue, the suppression of all desires, an attribute like beauty, a presence in the world, feeling guilty after an act, or the lack of guilt after an act, etcetera. Elphaba maintains that it's the nature of evil to be secret.
- Nicodemus in The Dresden Files tries to play this card. But, seeing as he treats the Moral Event Horizon as a guideline... yeah. Harry tells him to shove it.
- One episode of Murder, She Wrote uses the "I'm just in it for the money" subversion.
- The Black Guardian in Doctor Who justifies outright lying to Turlough about the Doctor being evil: "Your evil is my good." An earlier story had Sutekh use those exact same words toward the Doctor. Bilis Manger also uses those words in the Torchwood novel The Twilight Streets. It's a Shout-Out to John Milton's Paradise Lost.
- In Prescription: Murder, the Columbo pilot, Columbo has a drink with the killer, a psychiatrist, in his office and he asks him to come up with a profile for a "theoretical" pre-mediated murderer. The killer explains that this man is probably smart, well educated, even courageous for having the nerve to go through with murder. When Columbo points out that, despite how admirable he may appear in those respects, he is still a murderer and may even be insane, the murderer asks why, just because he committed an immoral act, that makes him insane, and goes on to say that morals are relative and conditioned, and that even if murder was repugnant to the killer, if it was his only solution to his problems then it is just pragmatic to go through with it. Of course, when asked by Columbo how do you catch such a man, he replies, "You don't".
- The Babylon 5 Direct-To-DVD movie The Lost Tales featured a discussion between a Catholic priest and Colonel Lochley about why God allows evil to exist if he is All Powerful. The priest points out that, God being all powerful and the lord over all creation, it stands to reason that He is neither good nor evil, but rather that both good and evil are tools that He uses in ways beyond the comprehension of mere mortals to guide the Universe.
- The argument pops up on occasion in Stargate Atlantis, in regards to the Wraith. Humans cannot coexist with the Wraith, because the Wraith eat humans. However, the Wraith can only eat humans: there is no other source of sustenance for them. Are the Wraith really evil then, if they are simply trying to survive and not starve? A running subplot in the series is the Atlantis expedition's attempt to create a retrovirus that will enable the Wraith to digest ordinary food, removing their need to feed on humans. By the end of the series, a small set of Wraith are willing to try it, if it means peaceful coexistence, but the retrovirus still isn't quite ready.
- Paul and Storm's song "Live" (done in the style of Jonathan Coulton) is about a lonely Mad Scientist ("The perfect girl / It seems was just too hard to find / So I had to make her ... "). When the mob comes with Torches and Pitchforks, the scientist says:
They call me a monster
For making a monster
But what is a monster, anyway?
Someone frightening the mob?
Someone playing God?
Or is it someone who's too scared to understand,
And so they stand in love's way?
- Jesus Christ Superstar: "But what is truth? Is yours the same as mine?" Possibly a subversion, as Pilate's argument can be a Strawman Argument or an Only Sane Man moment, depending on the production.
- The Brewster aunts in Arsenic and Old Lace might qualify as a humorous example as they sincerely believe they are doing good by killing lonely old men, allowing them a pleasant death comfortably drinking their famous elderberry wine, and ironically view their nephew Mortimer as the black sheep of the family given his Deadpan Snarker attitude (it should also be noted that their other nephew, Jonathan, is Ax-Crazy).
- The villains of Assassin's Creed I, being literal Knight Templar types, do this all the time, calling Altair's motives for taking them down into question. Although Altair has a tendency to pull the "What Is Evil" card himself.
- Yggdrassil pulls this on Lloyd during a Hannibal Lecture in Tales of Symphonia, claiming his genocidal and world-shattering shenanigans in the name of eliminating discrimination is just the same as Lloyd choosing Colette's life over Sylvarant's restoration at the end of the Journey of Regeneration. The party's eventual response to this is that at least Lloyd is trying to find a way to Save Both Worlds that doesn't involve intentional loss of innocent life.
- Star Control II
- An optional conversation lets you attempt to force the Always Lawful Evil Ilwrath into admitting that they are, in fact, good. While this does confuse them a bit and irritates them enough to immediately attack you with an inexhaustible force of fighting ships, the argument makes it clear that you're defining "societal deviance" as evil, while they're defining evil as "hurting other people". It's more Rule of Funny than anything else.
But 'evil' is that which is morally bad or wrong. And if your actions are judged by your society as correct, aren't you, in fact, good? Ilwrath captain:
Hmmm... We ARE All Evil. We All Behave In A Mutually Agreed-Upon Fashion Of Murder, Torture, Deceit And So Forth. Our Uniform Acceptance Of This Heinous Credo Creates An Orderly And Cooperative Society Which Hardly Seems Evil. Evil Is Doing Things That Make Others Hurt Or Fear. We ALL Do That, Of Course. But Since We ALL Do Such Things, As Sanctioned By Our Culture, It Would Be 'Bad' To Do Otherwise. Which Means... Er... Puny Hu-Man, Do Not Play With Words! You Anger Both Dogar And Kazon
! Now You Must Die!
- Pulled by Ur-Quan Kzer-Za (and Kohr-Ah) to certain point. When players first meet Kzer-Za and tells them they are evil, they point out that they are effectively forcing your race from killing themselves, as they have seen in past have prevented Thraddash from doing. Kohr-Ah, on the other hand, point that they don't try to wipe galaxy out of all life because it's fun/evil, but because they feel it's only way they can live.
Kohr-Ah captain: Yes, you are not a enemy. We have no enemies. Today, you are nothing. Just... a spore. A Seed. If allowed to blossom, you might, one day, be threat to our freedom and security. That's why we cleanse.
- At the end of Mega Man Zero 4 the human Dr. Weil claims that a heroic robot like Zero could never kill a human. Unfortunately for Weil, Zero doesn't consider himself a hero. Cue boss music! Hell, at that point Zero barely considers Weil "human". Things were not going to end well for Weil. Or, to say it more accurately, Weil revealed that he was a human because all reploids received programming which made it impossible for them to willingly hurt humans (which is why they were considered "heroes"). But because reploids were copies of Light's X (programming-wise, they had different configurations and lacked the conscience simulation X went through) and Zero wasn't a reploid but rather something Wily created as counter to Light's last creation, he did not have such programming and thus could choose the "evil" of killing Weil, a human, in order to stop him. This is also why he doesn't consider himself a hero (because he's the only "reploid" who can really fight for his own reason, outside of X who is already dead), and there are also his past experiences which left him thoroughly broken in regards to "heroism" (he had repeatedly been a trigger for conflicts, and his mere presence resulted in many people and reploids dying).
- Caulder/Stolos does this in Advance Wars: Days of Ruin when he starts lecturing protagonist Will/Ed about how the nature of society (and his apprenticeship under Brenner/O'Brian) has brainwashed him into conforming to a flawed set of ethics, and what a wonderful thing this ruined world is for allowing people to make up their own minds. Of course, since Caulder/Stolos is the sort of person who could — and probably would — create an experiment to test the effects of orbital reentry on cute kittens For Science!, Will/Ed isn't convinced for a second. And that would be tame for Caulder. He created a friggin' pandemic just to see how humanity would respond (answer: panicking a lot and getting themselves killed.) Even after Caulder's speech about the "purity" of his motives, it isn't hard to see how Will could honestly claim the moral high ground. Hell, even Waylon would probably think Caulder was nuts.
- Towards the end of the first act of Final Fantasy VIII, as the party prepares to assassinate the sorceress, Irvine comments to Squall about how evil she is. Mulling over the idea, Squall goes into an internal monologue in which he expresses his belief that "good" and "evil" are purely constructs of one's point of view, excuses each side of a conflict uses to justify fighting the opposing side. It's one of the more interesting revelations into his thought process. Although given that Irvine knows that the Sorceress is matron Edea Kramer, his de facto mother-surrogate, whom everyone else seems to have forgotten, he might just be trying to build up some self-justification to psyche himself for the deed.
- Tomb Raider (2013): Near the end of the game, Mathias insists that he and Lara are Not So Different since they both have committed morally questionable actions and killed numerous people since being trapped on the island, declaring that there are no heroes on Yamatai, only survivors. Of course, he leaves out the evil things he's done that she hasn't, so it doesn't really hold water.
- Knights of the Old Republic: Kreia is all over this trope. She's rather up-front about how she's manipulating you and everyone else. She lampshades, openly mocks, and ridicules the morality constructions of both the GFFA and CRPGs. She openly expresses disgust with the very idea of "Light" and "Dark" sides of the Force, and especially the Force itself.
Kreia: What do you wish to hear? That I once believed in the code of the Jedi? That I felt the call of the Sith, that perhaps, once, I held the galaxy by its throat? That for every good work that I did, I brought equal harm upon the galaxy? That perhaps the greatest of the Sith Lords knew of evil, they learned from me?
- In the pure good ending in BioShock 2, Eleanor says to Delta that "You taught me that 'evil' is just a word. Under the skin, it's simple pain." Of course, this is the pure good route, saving everyone including the Alex-in-a-Jar, and Eleanor goes on to save Sophia and lovingly absorb Delta as her 'conscience,' with the Little Sisters by her sides.
- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night: In the following much-immortalized exchange between Dracula and Richter Belmont, the infamous Big Bad points out just how humanity as a whole aren't better than him:
- The last sentence is better phrased in the PSP Remake:
Dracula: Ha! Mankind. A cesspit of hatred and lies. Fight for them, then, and die for their sins!
- The question is directly asked by Dracula in the Rondo of Blood version:
Richter: Of all the self-serving claptrap!
The same basic faith drives all people to seek, to come together, to move forward! That, surely, can't be an evil thing! Dracula:
And yet, here I am. Do you not have any desires? Richter: Well... Dracula:
It is by your desires that you humans prosper, and it is your faith that has ruled you! Considering that, can you really call me evil?
- Used bigtime by Kotomine in Fate/stay night in the final route. Oddly enough, he himself does have the same moral compass as the good guys, despite evil feeling good to him. However, he argues that the Fetus Terrible that will destroy the world when it's born may or may not have the same morals and should be given the chance to explain itself before being judged. After it destroys the world of course. The hero's response can be summed up as "Huh? What are you talking about? I'm just trying to save my girlfriend."