This is arguably the lesson Naruto is hammering in in the ending stages of the War Arc and the Pain Arc. In the Pain Arc, Naruto has confronted Nagato after defeating the Six Paths of Pain. Naruto is unable to kill Nagato despite seriously wanting to. In the end, he spares Nagato and Nagato sacrifices his life to bring back everyone he killed in Konoha. During the ending stages of the War Arc, Obito tries hammering to Naruto that he can't protect anyone and even kills Shikaku, Inoichi, Ao, Mabui, even Neji, right in front of him to break him. But Naruto refuses to break and refuses the dream world Obito's offering over and over again. In the end, Naruto's bond with his friends is what allows him to triumph over Obito.
Angel Beats!: Yuri in the computer room, when she finds out that she can become 'God', denies the power. Made all the more powerful when you remember that her objective all along was to find 'God' to defeat him.
Everyone knows that Zoro from One Piece is one of the main good guys and despite him not showing it as often, he does look after the crew. The end of Thriller Bark shows exactly what kind of lengths he would go for them, as he fully intended to sacrifice himself as part of the deal to Kuma to spare the others.
During Usopp's introductory arc, he was willing to take on the entirety of Captain Kuro's men without his village even being aware of the danger. This nobility gained him the respect and aid of Luffy and the others.
Usopp's fights also tend to be examples of this. Especially his first real battle of the series. His opponent Choo is his physical superior in every conceivable way, and Usopp survives his first encounter by playing dead. As he starts covering himself in dirt to make his excuse for letting Choo leave more believable, he realizes he doesn't want to be a coward and a liar, stands up to Choo while scared to death, and actually comes out on top and wins.
To Usopp's credit, he was certainly FASTER than Choo.
Rachel from Tower of God is given the opportunity of climbing the Tower as long as she plays part in the conspiracy that requires Baam to die. When they are alone and Baam once again states he wants to be with her, she pushes him off the platform.
In Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Batou corners a serial killer he had been chasing in order to exact revenge on him for slaughtering a village full of innocent people. He has the opportunity to kill him without anybody asking questions (in fact, the CIA agents working with him were banking on this to happen). However, Batou reminds the killer (and himself) that he's a law enforcement officer now, not a soldier, and promptly arrests him.
The defining moment of End of Evangelion: Shinji Ikari has the choice of returning to life (and allowing others to do the same) or dooming humanity to an eternity as a single non-sentient organism. Nobody would EVER know if he chose to die. Nobody would judge him for it. The decision was his and his alone. He proved, for possibly the only time in the series, that he truly was the hero by deciding to return to life, even though it would be painful and lonely. Granted, there's no "villain" urging him to let humanity die, but it's his internal conflict.
In Planetes, Tanabe is on the moon with no air left in her suit, and an unconscious terrorist with a full tank of oxygen at her feet. She is tempted to let the terrorist die and steal the air for herself. But in the end she realizes she can't, and lets herself begin to choke to death.
A variant occurs in Death Note. After discovering the eponymous Death Note, Light goes on a rampart killing spree of criminals over 5 days that surprises a god of death. This is later revealed to be because he expected some retribution to come to him and he wanted to do as much "good" as possible. It's only after Ryuk explains to him that there are no consequences to using the Death Note (specifically that the user cannot go to Heaven or Hell) that he starts his A God Am I attitude... then it all goes downhill from there.
Very important to Code Geass. Much of the point of Lelouch is showing someone who pretends to be The Hero in the limelight, then revealing his "real self" when isolated from that limelight. The series shows that Lelouch is quite capable of both very good, and very bad things... as well as not being an entirely stable person.
This happens in Superman/Batman of all places, with Batman as the tempter. When both heroes confront then-president of the United States, Lex Luthor, over a bounty he placed on Superman's head, blaming Luthor for an incoming meteor about to hit the earth, and the beating he just gave to their respective proteges, Superman has been pushed so far he is ready to fry Luthor, who actually dares him to do it since he doesn't believe he will go that far. That is, until Batman shows up and quite calmly tells Superman he [Batman] won't stop him, and that they can just make it look like an accident or "better yet, as if he'd vanished without a trace." It is at this point that Luthor starts sweating cold. Needless to say, Superman doesn't kill him and settles for throwing him against the wall before leaving to stop the meteor. Which was what Batman probably knew would happen all along. Probably.
A similar moment happens in a DCAU finale. After Flash defeats Lexiac and vanishes into the speed force, Luthor taunts the heroes that he did kill him after all. Superman picks him up by the neck and readies the laser vision. Wonder Woman starts to rush forward, but Batman holds her off.
Superman: I'm not the man who killed President Luthor. Right now I wish to Heaven that I was, but I'm not.
That was definitely a Batman Gambit. Superman had been struggling throughout the arc with the actions of his alternate universe counterpart. Batman wanted to give Superman the chance to affirm his character. With the opportunity, Supes shows just how strong he truly is.
In one of the Batman: The Animated Series based comics (during the The New Adventures period), a multi-millionaire philanthropist places a million dollar bounty for the Joker's head (dead or alive, but preferably dead), in order to have justice for the Joker killing his son. He does so via live broadcast, including the Times-Square-esque television screens in Gotham Uptown. The whole city goes berserk as everybody tries to capture and or kill the Joker. Finally, Batman kidnaps the millionaire, brings him to a dark corner of Gotham where the Joker is tied to a chair in a cone of light. Batman says that he will not allow the man to buy himself a murder; if he wants Joker dead, he is going to have to kill him himself. Before disappearing into the dark though, Batman asks the businessman if this is really what he wants, and if it is really worth it. The man, alone with Joker, begins to lunge at the clown to strangle him, but stops himself, unable to go against his humanitarian nature. The next day, he withdraws the bounty, instead using it to start a support organization for the families of victims of violent crime. Just like Batman expected he would.
Batman himself ends up in this position with the Joker in The Dark Knight Returns. They're in an abandoned carnival ride, the Joker has just killed dozens of people after Batman's return has drawn him out of a decades-long catatonic state, and Batman has sworn that he'll never let the Joker take another life and is prepared to kill him. In the end, Batman can't do it and paralyses the Joker by nearly breaking his neck. Laughing at Batman's lack of guts and knowing that no one else in the world will know he didn't do it, Joker finishes the job for him and kills himself.
A Secret Six chapter contains a chilling inversion of this and other similar situations. The titular group of Villain Protagonists is hired to snatch a pedophile serial killer from police, by the father of one of the said killer's victims, who intends to avenge his daughter personally. However, when Catman and Deadshot deliver the safely bound killer into an isolated storehouse, where no one will hear any screams, he starts backing down, clearly unprepared to take another's life and saying he doesn't think he can do that. Catman coldly responds with "Yes, you can", and a short but detailed instruction about the most painful ways to flense a human. Judging by the man's immediate reaction, he takes this advice to heart.
In Chapter 7 of Don Rosa'sThe Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, "Dreamtime Duck of the Never-Never", Scrooge (decades before becoming wealthy) chooses to return a huge opal that had been stolen to its rightful place in a sacred Aboriginal cave, rather than take it for himself and make a fortune selling it.
The same four-issue arc of the Star WarsRogue Squadron comic that introduces Baron Soontir Fel, Ace Pilot of the Empire, shows us that he's not that bad a guy by including a scene where his superior, a corrupt admiral tasked with protecting a planet, tells him to relax and enjoy the planet's luxuries, which includes a scantily-clad local girl named "Grania". Fel says that his wife wouldn't approve. The admiral tells him that his wife wouldn't either, but no one needed to know. Fel uses the stock answer of "I'll know."
Star Wars Invasion #3: Finn has the opportunity to kill a trapped Yuuzhan Vong warrior, but instead he frees him, instructing him to "learn." Luke Skywalker was covertly watching this Secret Test of Character, however.
True natures are revealed at times like this. [...] No mercy could be expected — but some individuals exceed expectations.
"I am Princess of Alderaan, Luke. Fate has cast me as a leader of the Rebellion. For better or worse, whatever the outcome... I'll play that role to the finish."
In the second Booster Gold series, Booster intends to become a serious, hard-working superhero in tribute to Blue Beetle. Then Rip Hunter offers him a chance to protect the time continuum — by maintaining his reputation as a fool, which will protect him from time-traveling enemies. Booster struggles but accepts. (Although, in this case, Rip can offer that he will know that Booster is a great hero, and later Batman becomes Booster's Secret Keeper.)
Played heartbreakingly straight by a doomed Buffy body double in one of the Buffy Season 8 Comics. "I tried to feel it. I tried to face the darkness like a woman and I don't need any more than that. You don't have to remember me. You don't even have to know who I am. But I do." Made all the more powerful because we never learn the girl's name.
Wedge Antilles earned one in a Rogue Squadron comic set shortly after the destruction of the Second Death Star. Corellia's capital city is attacked by an Imperial madman desperate to show that the Empire had not yet been defeated. After several days of intense fighting, they cornered him and forced him to flee in a TIE Interceptor, with Wedge chasing after him in another. Wedge manages to shoot him down and lands to find the man crawling out of the wreckage. After giving him one strong punch in the face, Wedge binds his hands, saying that no one would question him if he decided to execute the Imperial right there, but then all of the man's victims would never see justice.
The ending of the original Doom Patrol series had their nemeses take a small fishing village hostage, demanding the Patrol's deaths in exchange. The Doom Patrol accepted the deal, and died as obscurely as they lived. Until the inevitable Retcon, anyway.
The corresponding episode in Batman: The Brave and the Bold called "The Last Patrol!" had the Patrol do the same thing, their deaths broadcast all over the world by General Zahl. However, he finds the people end up ADMIRING the Patrol for their sacrifice. The General realizes that even in Death, the Doom Patrol defeated him. In memoriam, the island village of fourteen the Patrol died for is renamed "Four Heroes."
Arguably the entire impetus of Empowered in later chapters, with the titular character proving her heroism in ways that will never garner acclaim or repair her tarnished public image because, quote, "THIS. IS. WHO. I. AM." Compounded by the most jerky of her Jerk Ass teammates actively blaming her for the incidents she resolved.
A Spider-Man comic written by Roger Stern gives us a villainous example: Stilt Man is desperate for achieving ''something'' and plots killing Spider-Man to earn some street cred. However, during the fight Spider-Man saves him from a laser beam which accidentally knocks him out. Stilt Man realizes that they are alone and Spider-Man is defenseless. He just could murder him and claim he killed him in a fair fight, and nobody would ever know the truth... nobody but him, that is. So he does not go through with it.
Parodied in Richie Rich. An associate of Richie's father claims that most people are dishonest. Mr. Rich says the opposite. The associate suggests a Secret Test of Character: leaving a wallet stuffed with cash on the sidewalk and seeing whether the first person to notice the wallet keeps it or tries to find its owner. Along comes a man whose face lights up when he sees the wallet, but who then holds it up and asks if it belongs to anyone. "What do you think now?" says Mr. Rich, smiling. "I don't think this was a fair test," says his colleague, as the last panel zooms out to show the passerby is being filmed for television.
The My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic The Best Night Ever has Prince Blueblood, stuck in a "Groundhog Day" Loop on the day of the Grand Galloping Gala, work very hard at shedding his Prince Charmless qualities and go full-out to make the Gala as good as it can be in order to escape. It fails because he's trying too hard, and all of it comes across as artificial. When the loop starts again, he goes out into the palace sculpture garden, stands at the foot of Discord's statue, and seriously considers setting him free. After a long moment of contemplation, Blueblood finally decides he can't do it, and walks away to try one more time.
In the Pony POV Series, it's shown in the Origins arc that when Discord was reincarnated on Earth following the Alicorn/Draconnequi War, Galaxia attempted to smother him in his crib... and couldn't bring herself to do it, even knowing what he would become if he regained his memories. She lived to regret this.
In Background Pony Lyra ambushes Straight Edge, the alcoholic, abusive father of Snips, and breaks his legs, knowing that she can get away with anything thanks to her curse, which edits her out of the memory of anyone she interacts with after a short period of time. However, she stops short of breaking his horn because of this trope, and even transports him to the hospital once he's forgotten about the attack.
Lyra's decision in the penultimate chapter also qualifies. The only way she can remove her curse is to play the last elegy of the Nocturne of the Firmaments, and, in the process, rewind time to the moment she was cursed and erase all the good she had achieved, up to and including the crucial role she played in defeating Discord. No one, herself included, would ever know if she took this option, but Lyra decides against it and returns to Ponyville to live out her life as an Unperson with a fractured memory.
In Peggy Sue fanfic The Second Try, nobody knew that Shinji and Asuka were time-travelers. They could have let everything happening again, not trying changing anything, or quit piloting to spare themselves of their worst ordeals-, and nobody would ever know that they had left the world dying. Still they chose fighting and trying to save the world.
Many of the one-shot stories in the Axis Powers Hetalia fic Tizenot cover moments in Austria and Hungary's lives that only they alone know.
In Suzumiya Haruhi No Index, Kyon could have left Mugino, who had been trying to kill him, to be killed by the Celestial while they were both in Closed Space, but he instead saves her. It pays off because she falls for him.
In Dirty Sympathy, Edgeworth points out that Klavier and Apollo could have left Vera Misham to hang so they wouldn't have to deal with KristophGavin but instead save the girl.
In Mega Man Recut, Wily has a moment like this in "Robosaur Park" and, to the surprise of many, passes.
Films — Animated
The Rescuers has Bernard singing the RAS anthem by himself just outside the meeting hall. When Bianca sees him doing that, that is enough proof for her of how deeply he values the organization's ideals. Bernard was merely the janitor at the time, and the other representatives/agents who were in the meeting hall were being far less reverent of the anthem.
Disney's Tarzan has Clayton give Tarzan the choice of shooting him with his own double-barreled shotgun with no one else around: "Go ahead, shoot me, be a man". Tarzan's reply? Mimicking the sound of the gun being shot to put some fear into Clayton before smashing said shotgun in front of him. "I Not a man like you."
This trope is discussed in City Slickers. To paraphrase the conversation: "Okay, you're married, but suppose a gorgeous woman came from a spaceship and wanted to have sex with you and leave without anyone knowing. Would you do it?" "No." "Why not?" "Because that happened to my cousin, and the women at the hairdresser's shop found out about it because they know everything!"
In Clerks, Dante leaves a relatively unsupervised pile of money on the counter in the store for change and payment of goods, with a sign next to it that encourages the customers to "...leave money on the counter. Take change when applicable. Be honest." Dante is actually on the floor behind the counter with his girlfriend, inattentive of his job. She asks how he knows that they taking the right amount of change or are even paying for what they are taking and he responds with something like "Theoretically, people see money on the counter and no one around, they think they're being watched."
This is the whole premise of The Dark Knight. The Joker wants to prove that people only do the right thing when it's convenient, and that they'll inevitably turn into monsters when they need to save themselves.
In Donnie Darko, Donnie goes back in time and lets himself die so that everyone else can live.
In Hannibal, Lecter is at the Big Bad's mercy, about to be fed to a pit of wild boar, when Lecter raises an interesting question to his personal physician:
Hannibal: Hey Cordell! Why don't you push him in? You can always say it was me.
The physician does. This must be one of the only times in the history of fiction that killing somebody who is helpless in your care and then setting free a killer like Hannibal Lecter is actually the heroic choice.
Bilbo has the chance to kill Gollum and no-one would know about it. He doesn't.
Another one happens to Bilbo when he overhears the dwarves talking about Bilbo deserting them after escape from the goblins. Since he is wearing the Ring and thus invisible, he could have let them believe he was gone for good and could have gone home back to the Shire. Instead, he reveals himself and continues the journey with them.
Villainous version: Sebastian Caine in Hollow Man has quite a bit of unspoken Inner Monologue about this trope and concludes that "It's amazing what you can do... when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror any more."
Either his start of darkness or his crossing the moral event horizion (depending exactly on how you feel about it) has him seeing his lax-about-closing-her-shades-while-changing neighbor while he's invisible. He pulls off one of his latex gloves and asks himself "who'll know?" It's shown that he messed with her and got at least a good look at her naked, and strongly implied that he at least assaulted, and likely raped her.
In the 1965 comedy How to Murder Your Wife, Jack Lemmon is on trial for murdering his wife. When the trial appears to be headed for a conviction, he takes up his own defense and pleads justifiable homicide, appealing to the all-male jury's frustrations regarding their own wives. He offers a witness (and thus the jury) the idea that if they could press a magic button and their wives would disappear and no one would know, would they do it?
In Lord of War, Jack Valentine keeps Yuri Orlov from being killed after being almost busted for gun running to Africa by citing this trope to his partner (who was suggesting they just kill Orlov).
"Look at where we are! Who will know?"
In Pitch Black, Riddick tells Johns to kill him in cold blood ("That's what I'd do to you."). An interesting case because the villain is effectively trying to commit suicide-by-hero. Subverted because Johns only ignores him because Riddick's bounty is worth double if he's alive, and it's strongly implied Riddick knew how he'd react.
Later in that film, Riddick does the same thing with Fry. "Nobody will blame you. Save yourself, Carolyn."
The Purge: When you have an event in which you can literally get away with anything for 12 hours, it really tests your character.
Tom Hanks' character plays this off ingeniously in Road to Perdition, covering his getaway from a heist by convincing the bank manager to take some of the loot from the bank robbery for himself. "You can always tell Chicago (Al Capone) that I took it."
In Rush Hour 2, Jackie Chan's character Lee has the Big Bad against the wall all alone and at gunpoint, and given what the Big Bad has done and the effect it had on Lee's life, none would blame him for shooting the guy where he stood. Chris Tucker's character James Carter enters this scene as the angel to the Big Bad's devil, telling Lee to not go too far. He then subverts his role after the Big Bad insults the memory of Lee's father, and tells Lee to shoot the guy. Lee still doesn't do it.
In Saving Private Ryan, Miller's squad comes across a German machine gun nest set up to ambush any approaching American soldiers. His squadmates point out that they can easily bypass the Germans, but Miller decides to take it out to prevent any more Americans from being ambushed. They also capture a German soldier and could easily execute him on the spot, but decide to take mercy and let him go. Finally, half the plot hinges on Miller and his squad's willingness to pursue what by all rights is a suicide mission. They could have easily just scrubbed the mission and said they couldn't find Ryan, but they ultimately decide to see it through to the end.
From Angels with Dirty Faces: No one on Earth except Father Jerry will ever know that Rocky (probably) only pretended to be a coward when brought to the death chamber so that the Dead End Kids would stop admiring him.
Nineteenth [Platoon] lasted seventeen minutes from the time the gates closed. They accounted for one-hundred and eighty nine enemy casualties. No one witnessed their heroism.
In Piers Anthony'sOn A Pale Horse, Luna is illegally destined by Satan to premature death on a certain day, at a time when her soul is weighted with so much evil that she's doomed to Hell upon her death. Nonetheless, knowing her fate, she goes to put her death to the best use she can find, making a Heroic Sacrifice to trade places with a virgin scheduled to be sacrificed to an endangered dragon, then allowing herself to die rather than damage the dragon's egg to save herself. The thing is, all this good pushes her soul into neutral, which means that Death is called to judge her soul personally, which he refuses to do, for various reasons up to and including having fallen in love with her. All of which is exactly as Fate planned.
In The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, the protagonist master game-player is pressed into a multi-year epic journey across the galaxy that is instrumental in the downfall of an empire, ultimately because he accepted a drone's help to cheat in a meaningless exhibition match. And it was not even in order to win, but just to convert a certain victory into a record-breaking one.
It is later revealed that the protagonist was set up from the getgo. The drone who offered him the temptation to cheat was an agent of Special Circumstances — the same people who the protagonist had refused an earlier invitation to come work for. So they sent someone to help him cheat, then record him cheating, and then blackmail him...not into coming to work for Special Circumstances, but into doing the drone a favor that he could only accomplish by first going back and accepting SC's recruitment offer, which was "conveniently" still open. Gurgeh, until the end of his life, never figures out that the two events were related.
In Memory, Miles Vorkosigan is asked why he did not accept a bribe, and part of the question is that it was almost certain that no one would have realized it. Miles modestly disclaims it on the grounds three would have known: him, the man who offered it, and the man he would have sacrificed by taking it. Only when it is pointed out that he would have outlived them does he admit that accepting the offer would have changed him irrevocably.
Miles: "The one thing you can't trade for your heart's desire is your heart."
Later, in A Civil Campaign, Miles's father tells him the difference between reputation and honour: "Reputation is what other people know about you. Honour is what you know about yourself."
There's also the fact that Polly had a magic ring of her own and could get home perfectly well without Digory. The Witch doesn't know that, but Digory does and it's that slip-up which makes him realize how "false and hollow" everything Jadis said was.
In Graham McNeill'sWarhammer 40,000Ultramarines novel Dead Sky Black Sun, Pasanius and Uriel are in the Eye of Terror, and Pasanius suggests that not stealing a treasure from a daemon lord might be better. Uriel cites a philosopher who asked whether, if a stalagmite fell with no one to hear, it would make a sound, and says he understands it now: they will do the honorable thing, knowing that no one is likely to ever know.
This is the whole point, even the unspoken Aesop, of Les MisÚrables. Valjean could easily let another man rot in jail in his place, freeing him from worry about Javert forever and no one would ever know. But he'll know, and God will know, so he stops the execution and reveals himself, forcing him to disrupt his now peaceful and productive life to go back on the run from the law.
Played much more darkly in Victor Hugo's other famous novel, Notre Dame de Paris. Esmeralda is about to be hanged for the murder of Phoebus. Phoebus, quite alive, is standing in the crowd and nobody recognizes him. Revealing that he's still alive would put him in no real legal trouble at all. He lets them hang her.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo is tempted to run away and leave Sam, Pippin, and Merry to die at the hands of the barrowwights because he could get away alive. He does not reflect on how no one else would know; then, he doesn't leave, either.
Sam could have left Frodo to die at the end of The Two Towers and kept the Ring for himself. Instead he is the only mortal to ever give up the Ring willingly and without outside coercion.
Also happened with Bilbo and Gollum in The Hobbit, when Bilbo (invisible from the Ring) needs to get past Gollum, who had already made it clear that he wanted to eat him. Bilbo reflects that he could easily kill the defenceless and unprepared Gollum with his sword and no-one would ever know, but pity stays his hand — which is ultimately responsible for the resolution of The Lord of the Rings.
In a tale of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the Anti-heroic duo briefly go into semi-retirement. Fafhrd the Barbarian becomes the acolyte of the Church of Issek of the Jug, a faith that had one priest, no other followers, and was maybe two days away from failing entirely. Fafhrd's reason? He saw the priest pat a deaf-blind-and-dumb child on the head while (as far as the priest knew) no one was looking. The priest's action is described as possibly being unique in that world's history.
The Firm by John Grisham does this in a more conventional way, with the main character tempted to adultery. Unusually, he gives in, but doing so turns out to be a very bad idea.
In Small Gods, Brutha contemplates leading Vorbis into a trap in the labyrinth. He thinks: "who would ever know? I would" and doesn't do it.
When Brutha carries a comatose Vorbis through the desert, he's In The Dark the entire time. The Great God Om keeps reminding him of this, without success.
Commander Sam Vimes of the Watch, as a deconstruction of the Cowboy Cop, has a couple of examples of this. At the end of Night Watch he faced a Serial Killer in a deserted graveyard and no one save Vimes himself would have known (or cared) if he had simply killed Carcer instead of trying to arrest him properly. This is a good part of the plot in Thud! where we see that Vimes has an "internal watchman" that stops him from abusing his power, in response to the question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This comes up again in Snuff: Willikins believes that Vimes would uphold the law even against his own desire for extrajudicial justice, but unlike Vimes, Willikins himself is perfectly willing to murder Stratford rather than try to bring him to formal justice for his crimes. Meanwhile, Vimes believes that if he was ever truly "in the dark" he would likely cross the line while pursuing psychopaths like Stratford. Therefore, he goes to great lengths to ensure that he is always being watched, even if the watcher is only in his head.
Esmerelda Weatherwax. She's not "gone to the bad" only because she has Esmerelda Weatherwax watching over her shoulder the whole time.
And, in another sense, Carrot. He's had a couple moments like this, most notably at the end of Men at Arms AND HE ALWAYS MAKES THE RIGHT CHOICE. Because he truly IS a hero.
In Tom Holt'sYe Gods!, when Jason meets the old woman, she insists on their going through the whole spiel. When he says no one would know if they didn't, she says, "I will."
In The Door into Sunset, the last volume of Diane Duane'sThe Tale of the Five series, the main character Freelorn is confronted with Cillmod, his half-brother and the man who usurped his throne (and this is a Fisher King scenario, so that's doubly bad). They are in an absolutely dark, isolated place. Cillmod has just attacked him. 'Lorn could kill him, and no one would ever, ever know. If they did, who's going to argue with the king about it afterward? In a remarkably astute move, Freelorn spares Cillmod's life and puts him in a position of high authority in his kingdom (as the latter wasn't actually evil at all, just manipulated. Cillmod legitimately wanted to try and rule as a good king, but that whole aforementioned Fisher King thing was pretty set in stone, and he didn't have a strong enough bloodline).
In the first book of Harry Turtledove'sAlternate HistoryColonization series, a sequel to the earlier Worldwar series, Vyacheslav Molotov, General Secretary of the Communist Party, is kidnapped and sent to the gulag by Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the NKVD, as part of Beria's attempted coup to seize control of the Soviet Union. Molotov is rescued by Georgy Zhukov, Beria's rival and commander of the Red Army, after Zhukov survived his own attempted assassination and thwarted the coup. In the aftermath, with Beria already having delivered false announcements that Molotov had voluntarily retired and with many senior communist officials already dead, Molotov is worried that Zhukov could easily just execute him and seize power for himself now that Beria had been dealt with. Zhukov seems to consider this for a moment, but in the end, apparently surprising even himself, he allows Molotov to remain as General Secretary and head of the Soviet Union. Zhukov is not above extorting more funding for the Red Army afterward and "suggesting" the course of political actions, but he remains loyal to Molotov for the duration of his rule. This is likely a reference to the Real Life Zhukov's admission that he was much better dealing with military matters than with politics.
In The Belgariad, Durnik's influence on the growing Garion is exemplified by his explaining that he is making a small piece to be used on the bottom of a cart as good as it can be made — because he will see the cart every day and be reminded how good or poor a job he did.
In The Dresden Files, Harry Dresden has had his fair share of these moments, usually when faced with Black Magic.
It's a recurring theme in the Changes, with several characters, even Mac, warning Harry that the latest crisis will show Harry who he really is. It showed that Harry is capable of being a true monster, if the stakes are high enough. Including when Harry is given the choice to kill a man and gain the power to save his daughter...and goes through with it.
The next book shows Harry does feel remorse when he realises the true consequences of his actions. It turns out he was manipulated by a Fallen Angel with seven simple but powerful words into making the choice but the realisation, along with Mab's speech about how she now controls him, almost convinces him that he'll stay a monster forever. But the scales must be balanced. Then Uriel uses his seven whispered words.
Jane Eyre refuses to live with her lover outside the bonds of matrimony though nobody would know, or care if they did, because she would know and she cares for her personal integrity even if nobody else does.
In the Dale Brown novel Fatal Terrain, Patrick McLanahan warns his group that due to the classified nature of their mission, even if they succeed no one will congratulate them, and at worst they will be condemned by their own side. On the other hand, if they choose to back down and face trial in a federal court, it is likely that they will come out in a position to maintain Sky Masters, inc. None of his group flinch from it.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain has to deal with this twice, once when the wife of Sir Bercilak de Haudesert is trying to seduce him and again when a servant who takes him to the home of the titular Green Knight offers to keep silent if Gawain runs away from his almost certain death.
In John C. Wright'sFugitives of Chaos, Amelia weeps over a Western movie (High Noon by the description) and tells Vanity that she wants to be like the marshall, doing what is right regardless.
Selia of The Goose Girl offers Ani/Isi a very tempting offer — admit that she "lied", tell the king that Selia really is the Princess Anidori, and no one will ever have to know. Ani/Isi can even go back to her goose herd, rather than face death. This would lead to Ani/Isi's entire homeland being killed in ambush. Ani/Isi knows that she can't convince anyone of the truth, knows that she will die unless she sacrifices her people. No one would know but Ani/Isi, Selia, and Selia's guards... and the Prince and his guard, who are listening in a hidden passageway. Ani/Isi doesn't know that, though, but declares she won't lie anyway. Cue Big Damn Heroes.
This is one of the major themes of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Imperialists in Africa know that no other Europeans can see them, so they feel they are free to do whatever they want. Only Marlow, it seems, manages to retain his humanity — and he admits that he can feel himself becoming "scientifically interesting."
Happens twice in In the Keep of Time, from different points of view among the children. When Andrew goes back to get the key from the door, while the others are waiting in Anna's cottage, he is strongly tempted to escape back to the presentŚand the key even starts to turnin the door, before he wrenches it free and hides it instead. This act, he thinks, "took more courage than all the adventures and battles which were to follow". Later, when he finally returns from the Battle of Roxburgh, ready to go home, he cannot find the key, Elinor, or Ian and assumes they left without him. When he is reunited with them again, he learns they were indeed tempted to do so, but couldn't find the key either. Whether they too could have resisted if they had found it will never be known.
Subverted in Vonnegut's Mother Night. The moral of the story can be summed up as: you are who you pretend to be. At one point a Nazi informs the main character, who was working as a propagandist but was secretly passing information back to the Allies, that the Nazi knew the hero was a spy all along. The Nazi didn't care, though, because the hero's words were the only things that convinced him that the Nazis were right, and his country hadn't gone insane. Even if the hero was helping the allies, he'd helped the Nazis far more than he had ever helped them.
In one of the New Jedi Order books, Wedge Antilles leaves the command station where he'd been directing a crucial battle, only to find that his shuttle had been destroyed. The only craft available is an X-Wing with damaged comms and no astromech. After taking off in it, he finds a civilian transport under attack by an enemy squadron, and bravely annihilates them by himself, but loses his shields in the process. When a second squadron heads towards them, he has a choice: if he stays to fight the squadron, he will almost certainly die, and, as he is in an extra fighter that was assigned to no one and he can't comm anyone to tell them where he is, his family and friends will never learn what became of him. He will die alone and unnamed. Or, he could abandon the transport, having already fought valiantly to save him. No one could blame him for retreating in the face of certain death after having already given his all. Wedge turns to face the approaching squadron head on. Because it's Wedge, the best damn X-Wing pilot in history, he wins.
Played with in X-Wing: Wraith Squadron. When Wedge and Wraith Squadron capture a band of pirates, he asks them about their affiliation with Warlord Zsinj. The pirates refuse to talk, claiming that they're settlers in an unclaimed system, so there are no laws to govern their actions. Wedge counters by pointing out that if there really weren't any laws, then he and his men could easily murder all of the pirates and nobody would ever now. Suffice to say, the pirates decide to talk.
In Michael A. Stackpole's I, Jedi, Corran Horn gives a whole litany of examples from his past, while trying to convince Luke that rather than being ignorant of temptation he does, in fact, know the lure of the dark side. Two of them are cases when he could have shot someone and had it explained as "resisting arrest", one of those being when he caught the one responsible for killing his father (he says he could've marched Bossk into the lobby of One CorSec Plaza and shot him in the head and nobody on the force would've given it a second thought). The other example:
Corran: "I've walked into a warehouse and arrested a spicelord in his office. He opened a case and it had over a million credits in it. A million — more money than I'll ever see in my lifetime. It was mine, he said, if I'd just take it and walk away. No one would ever know. But I'd know, and I didn't do it."
Later in the novel, though, Corran faces a form of Scarpia Ultimatum, realizes that his pride has pushed him to the point that he "doesn't recognize himself in the mirror anymore," and has to trace back and find himself again...
It also slightly deconstructs the trope. To elaborate: In the backstory, Jaime was sworn to protect his king, but after fighting and losing a long rebellion, and as the rebels marched into his capital, "Mad King Aerys" planned to burn the entire city down with wildfire. He could just let him do it, or he could kill him, becoming an oathbreaker and saving thousands of lives, but he will only be known as Kingslayer, and no one will know why he did it, not even the rebels he literally surrenders the throne to.
In the Honor Harrington novel In Enemy Hands, Honor struggles with the desire to give in to despair during her captivity in State Sec hands, but manages to convince herself to refuse, believing that it is her duty to herself.
Albrecht Detweiler is unknown to the galaxy at large, his enemies, and even most of his allies. His plans will not come to fruition until long after he is dead, at which point he will still be unknown as figureheads make all the public moves. However, despite the fact that he will never even be acknowledged as existing, he follows through on his plans because he believes they are the right thing to do. Too bad he is the villain.
One part in The Name of the Wind has Kvothe and his almost love interest Denna alone, at night, curled up to each other for warmth. Denna had eaten some denner resin (a rather potent drug) and Kvothe knew she wouldn't remember a thing that had happened while she was high on it in the morning. He was tempted, once or twice, to sleep with her, but resisted, because he would know, even if she wouldn't.
Agent Pendergast finds the formula for an immortality elixir in The Cabinet of Curiosities. During the story, he agonizes over what to do with it when he finds it. Keep it to himself? Destroy it? Share it with humanity? In the end he realizes that no good could come of it's existence and he burns it. However, in the unofficial epilogue, he's memorized the formula before doing so and goes to pick up the ingredients afterward.
Young Sandry in Daja's Book is so considerate and scrupulous that when she accidentally burns an odd pattern into someone's jacket while he's out, she stays around until he comes back to point out the damage, take responsibility, and offer to replace it despite the difficulty. All the while, one of her friends is urgently insisting that she go take a message somewhere, and another is thinking she's daft and should just leave the jacket so she won't get in trouble.
In All Creatures Great and Small, Dr. Herriot is called into to perform a post-mortem on a dead cow with the owner assuming it was killed by lightning, which means an insurance pay out. However, Dr. Herriot determines that the cow died of heart failure and is solicited by the owner, who is a disagreeable chap anyway, to report it falsely as a lightning kill. However, Herriot, after hearing the usual claim that no one will know, responds that he himself will know what he did and stands his ground. The grump then blows his temper and complains to Herriot's boss, Dr. Siegfried Farnon, about Herriot's refusal to cooperate and Siegfried backs up his employee all the way.
Comes up in A Brother's Price. Jerin Whistler is being taken to be married; he's known to be a virgin and free of ST Ds, and men of his family are uncommonly virile; a family that was on its way to the cribs to try and get someone pregnant tries to pay his sisters to get him for one night with one of their daughters, who's also a virgin and clean. They reason that no one can tell if a man is a virgin, and this would profit everyone. Eldest Whistler will have none of this. Somewhat subverted in that Captain Tern was there, if overlooked, and reported this incident, making the Whistlers look better.
In Glen Duncan's Weathercock this is pretty much the theme of the book, along with its climax: Dominic, the protagonist, is given the chance to do what he's always struggled with the desire for - to torture someone to death. He doesn't do it. It is not about what he wants to do; as he notes, it is a matter of what he is and is not capable of.
Happens two times to ═˝igo Balboa, the sidekick of the Capitßn Alatriste in the novels of Arturo PÚrez-Reverte: Once in "Purity of Blood" (faced to surrender or attack, as 13-years old boy chooses to attack with a dagger the troops of the Inquisition including an expert assassin) and once in "The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet" (a trap is prepared for him and Alatriste under the supposition that ═˝igo would never dare not to ask him for support - he does). In both cases the fact of "showing the real character even with no possibility of glory" is indicated (in the first case by the narrator, in the second by Alatriste who actually arrives on time.
In Teresa Frohock's Miserere: An Autumn Tale, Caleb offers to go in after Lucien. No one would know that Rachael wasn't there for the arrest. She refuses; she would know.
Live Action TV
Andromeda: Captain Dylan Hunt is given the chance to frame his former friend Telemachus in order to restore the Commonwealth, a case of Utopia Justifies the Means. He chooses not to, but not without some reservations.
Also in the episode "Soul Mates", Londo gets dispensation from the Emperor to divorce two of his three wives (he must stay married to one). He invites his wives to the station and tells them he'll make a decision who to keep. Two of his wives flatter and kiss up to him, while one, Timov, is brutally honest about how she feels about him (in less than flattering terms). However, when one of the other wives has Londo poisoned, Timov donates blood to him to save him—and then tells Dr. Franklin not to tell Londo she did this. Had she done nothing and Londo died, she'd be guaranteed to inherit from him (along with the other wives, since he hadn't decided yet who to divorce) and remain financially secure—but she didn't want to "win her battles that way". Londo decides: He divorces the other two and keeps Timov because he appreciates her sincerity, of knowing truly where each stood.
Being Human: Done by a villain. George tries to convince Herrick to let the main characters go far away and never return, leaving Herrick to claim that he's killed them. George says that nobody would know, and Herrick responds that he will know that he allowed himself to show mercy to those he considers below him, and he specifically uses the words "I'll know".
Played subtly straight and strongly backwards in the episode "The Zeppo", while the rest of the Scooby Gang is busy taking care of a huge, horrific, wide-scale, apocalyptic, personally heartwrenching catastrophe, an undead delinquent jock who runs into Xander decides to blow up the high school for kicks. This would kill the Scooby Gang, and leave the Hellmouth open ending the world. Xander, not wanting to risk getting the world destroyed by distracting his more powerful friends from their own disaster, decides to take care of the problem instead, singlehandedly chases down and corners the jock; and by refusing to be swayed in the face of near-certain death, intimidates him into backing down. Afterwards, even though most of the episode revolved around Xander's feelings of inferiority, he feels no need to mention the escapade to his friends to prove his badassery, as it's enough that he knows what he did.
In Season 7's episode "Potential", Xander gives a speech to Dawn all about this:
Xander: They'll never know how tough it is, Dawnie, to be the one who isn't chosen. To live so near to the spotlight and never step in it. But I know.
Although considering in the Season 8 comics Dawn and Xander hook up and get a place and Buffy ends up living on their couch in a world without magic but still has vampires it's not so bad to not be in the spotlight
Runs with this a lot. It's usually a situation where Michael has to choose between getting his life back and helping his friends.
In probably the definitive example of the series, in Season 3, Michael is told that he's about to be unburned, he'll be accepted back by his government, he'll get everything he ever wanted. All he had to do was accept, and oh, by the way, Fiona's in trouble, but don't worry about that, she's his past, and he needs to look towards his future.
Michael: Fiona is not my past!(fast-draws and shoots Strickler dead)
Played with in one episode — Pierce, who has everyone convinced that he is on his deathbed, gives Britta a blank check for a large sum of money to be donated to the charity of her choice but offhandedly suggests that she could spend it on herself and no one would know. As it happens, Abed is making a documentary of the events of the episode, and Britta, in an odd cross between responses one and two, donates the money to the Red Cross and, without prompting, tearfully admits that she would've kept the money if she wasn't being filmed and that she's very ashamed of herself.
In a friendlier use of the trope, in one episode, Jeff, to stop a fight between friend, makes up "imaginary friendship hats" which quickly get discarded. Later on, when the friends are starting to make up, Jeff actually goes all the way back to retrieve and dust off the imaginary friendship hats, even though he admits he could've easily just stood outside the room for a minute and come back.
Subverted Trope in the episode "Midnight". Faced with the Ultimate EvilMonster of the Week that has possessed someone, some of the passengers propose throwing her out into the deadly light. The Doctor asks if they're willing to go through with it, and for a moment it looks like they won't... until they say, yes, they won't shy from it. This becomes a problem when the beastie tricks them into thinking the Doctor is possessed. The Doctor narrowly avoids death as a result. But it's also why they, with the exception of one person, survive.
The Tenth Doctor faced this in "The End of Time". After disaster has been averted, he realizes that Wilfred is sealed in a death trap, and the only way to save him is for someone else to take his place. Nobody would have ever known that Wilfred, an old man, could have been saved. Wilfred even begged the Doctor to just walk away and let him die. Yet despite this and his near-crippling fear of death, the Doctor chose to save Wilfred at the cost of one of his own lives.
Subverted in "The Waters of Mars". No one in the universe would ever have been the wiser if the Doctor had simply walked away from Bowie Base One, as everyone on the base was fated to die in a massive explosion. But the Doctor cannot bear to hear their cries of terror as their doom closes in on them, and he goes back to save them. However, this is portrayed as a bad thing, as he knew full well that their deaths were necessary to preserve the timeline and would lead to great progress in the coming decades; and when he decides to go back, his euphoria and realization that he can save anyone (and do anything) he wants now that there are no other Time Lords to stop him sends him plunging straight into A God Am I territory.
Billis: She is a crying, unarmed female civilian. I'm thinking of the visual.
Droxil: Nobody's looking.
Billis: Doesn't mean there's no visual.
Played for Laughs (sort of) when the Fourth Doctor finishes assembling the Key to Time and feigns being power-mad in a incredibly hammy way. Romana sees immediately that he's faking it and finds it slightly tiresome, until the Doctor explains what his point actually is - what if he wasn't?
Family Matters: When offered a bribe, policeman Carl Winslow rephrased response #1 as "I can't shave with my eyes closed." He then explains it means he wouldn't be able to look at himself in the mirror.
Farscape: John has traveled to an unstable alternate universe along with Scorpius, and needs to kill an innocent to find vital information (it's complicated). Thing is, this innocent just happens to look like a cross between Aeryn and Chiana. He can't bring himself to shoot her. Scorpius can.
If Simon had abandoned River no one would have paid attention and River would not have remembered it. Once in a while there is no middle ground between being great and being loathsome and as it happens he chose to be great. He did the impossible and that made him mighty.
Which is why he can wear as many fancy vests as he wants.
Kaylee: What's so damn important about bein' proper? It don't mean nothin' out here in the black.
Simon: It means more out here. It's all I have.
Frasier: One episode dealing with Niles and Maris' divorce finds Frasier faced with a dilemma to either lie at a legal deposition during Niles and Maris' divorce hearing and say he has no knowledge of Niles' feelings towards Daphne; on one hand, he either lies and commits perjury, or he tells the truth and ruins his brother. This prompts Frasier into a moral dilemma in which he explicitly points out to Martin, who is encouraging him to just lie about it, that he feels that "ethics are what we do when no one is looking!" The episode never actually reveals whether Frasier managed to resolve his dilemma, as the matter is ultimately resolved without him having to testify.
Chase spent most of the first two seasons being a near-amoral Doctor Jerk-in-training, charming patients with lies and treating them like experiments while doing whatever he can to advance his career. Then comes the episode where House orders him to perform a biopsy on the body of a baby that died in his care. Alone in the morgue, Chase prays for the baby's soul before cutting up its body.
He also kills a despot under his care, aware that he is disobeying all the oaths he took, risking losing his career and getting jail time, and risking his marriage. Just because he considers it the right thing to do to save thousands.
It's even more complicated than that: he is the one that helped convinced the team to treat the dictator. Then, when an intruder tries to assassinate him, Chase reacts instinctively, shouting a warning that alerts the guards and saves his life. Eventually, after hearing first-hand from the would-be assassin and the dictator about the atrocities this man and his forces have committed and will commit in the future, Chase understands/realizes that saving this evil man's life (again) means that he shares in the responsibility for all the future victims. He can't even just walk away at this point and let some other doctor do it, because he's already saved his life from the assassin.
The Legend Of William Tell: Will has run into a mine fire to save the last prisoner, trapped in a pit. The bars over the pit are burning Will every time he touches them, The mine's going to blow any minute, and when he gets a good look at the man he realises it's his new girlfriend's ex-boyfriend. Will is desperately in love with the girl, no one outside knows who the prisoner is, and no one will question it if he comes back out alone.
Kalem: No one will reproach you, William Tell. You cannot lift the grid and the mine is catching fire. You have done all you can.
Will: You mean I can leave him?
Kalem: And have Laliya, your love.
Instead he endures the burns, frees the man, and reunites him with the girl. It turns out to be a Secret Test of Character. Apart from that, he has several chances to kill Xax, which would make things an awful lot easier for him, and never takes them for various reasons; Xax has helped him, Xax is helpless, or he simply can't bring himself to do it.
The Outer Limits: There's the episode "The Voyage Home" where two astronauts are landing from space. Eventually one finds out his partner is an evil alien. The alien tells him if he shuts up, no one will know, he'll disappear. The astronaut alters the trajectory so they blow up. The ending narration is almost verbatim the title of this trope., "The true measure of a hero is when a man lays down his life with the knowledge that those he saves...will never know."
Revolution: The first season finale puts Tom Neville to the test. He takes control of the Monroe militia and is now making the rules. He is talking to Major Mark Franklin in a tent where it's just the two of them. Franklin is a Sebastian Monroe loyalist and doesn't want to work for Neville, so Neville tells him that he'll give him a horse and let Franklin ride back to his wife. Because, after all, he's not like Monroe. Oh, and he'll have to confiscate Franklin's gun. Neville fires a couple shots through the front of the tent with Franklin's gun, shoots Franklin dead with his own gun, and puts Franklin's gun in Franklin's hand. That's right, he just murdered Franklin in cold blood. Then, when his son and a militia soldier rush into the tent, Neville just claims that he tried to be a nice guy, Franklin tried to kill him, and he had to shoot him in self-defense. The scene more or less confirms the direction Tom Neville is going in.
Sesame Street: Occurs briefly in this show, of all places. During the song "The Ballad of Casey Mc Phee", Casey (portrayed by Cookie Monster) is entrusted with the job of delivering cookies, milk, and ice cream to a party on the other side of the mountain. When an avalanche blocks the train tracks, Casey realizes that he's alone, so nobody will see him eat some of the goods. However, he quickly comes to his senses and decides it would be wrong to do so - so he eats the snow instead.
The Sopranos: Dr. Melfi gets an awesome one of these in season two. After getting raped, she realises that she could tell Tony, and he would ensure that the rapist died screaming... and chooses not to.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Data faces an Inverted Trope instance where killing an evil character is portrayed as the ethical course of action. Data is kidnapped by a trader named Kivas Fajo who collects rare items. Data is put on display in a trophy room until he makes an escape with one of Fajo's underlings whom he befriends. Fajo kills the underling and is faced down by Data holding a weapon. Fajo tells Data to return to the trophy room and obey him or he will simply kill another underling and that the blood will be on Data's hands; the only other alternative is to kill Fajo, but he is confident that Data cannot take the action because has no emotions (thus no desire for revenge or justice) and his ethical programming prevents him from killing. Data leaps beyond his programming and decides the most ethical action is to kill Fajo to prevent more deaths.
Janeway insists that it's all the more important to uphold Federation values when they are so far from home. Unfortunately, due her Depending on the Writer status, and the sometimes questionable outcomes of the Prime Directive, this comes across poorly most of the time.
An early astronaut stumbles across some Negative Space Wedgie and ends up in the Delta Quadrant. Though he realizes his chances of rescue are non-existent, he continues to do his work, dutifully recording and exploring. He eventually spots a piece of alien hull, and realizes that it was worth their effort, and his sacrifice to explore the galaxy.
Similarly, Seven of Nine is aboard the ship to get information, but the singularity is about to close and trap her there. The crew only cared about getting her back alive and not about the information and data, but when she hears the recording of the astronaut's last words, she risks it all to get the data when no one could find issue with her failing to get it. She even recovers the man's body which is given a proper space burial.
Teen Wolf: When Peter Hale offers to turn Stiles into a werewolf in the season one finale, Stile's answer to Peter proposition is that he doesn't want it. Of course, Peter said he could tell he was lying, so there's definitely more to this.
Victorious: Subverted, where Robbie has nightmares about a giant evil Rex (his puppet), but rather than discover this is what he may be, he sees Rex as a separate person and not an extension of himself.
The West Wing: Has a version of this: Toby and the President are able to secretly bring together a Republican and Democratic senator to create a bipartisan fix to the Social Security system, but they can't claim any credit for it, or the two senators won't propose the plan. They decide to let the senators claim they came up with the idea by themselves. Ronald Reagan was fond of saying "there is no limit to what a man can achieve if he doesn't care who gets the credit."
Detectives Herc and Carver have a moment where they could pocket some money from a drugs bust, but realize they would get caught, and leave it. Then some of the money goes missing anyway, and the very angry Daniels wants it back. It turns out that the money had somehow gotten buried in the spare tire well of their patrol car's trunk. They admit that Daniels doesn't have any reason to believe them, as they couldn't even trust each other.
Later, they're confronted with a similar situation, except with no possibility of discovery. They look at each other, nod, and start stuffing cash under their Kevlar vests.
Carver later refers back to that incident — and to other, worse moral lapses — when he sadly tells Herc that "It all matters. Everything we do." (Herc doesn't seem to get the point.)
A main point in Breaking Bad. In the pilot, Walt is a put-upon family man with two depressing jobs whose cancer diagnosis inspires him to cook meth so his family won't lack for money. As the show progresses, he embraces his worst impulses and evolves From Nobody to Nightmare. A strong "in the dark" moment occurs near the end of season two - Walt allows Jane to choke on her own vomit, with no witnesses, since she was blackmailing him and endangering the operation.
An even bigger one comes in at the end of Season 4, where he poisons an innocent child in order to put in motion his Batman Gambit against Gus.
This happened to Al Bundy on Married... with Childrena lot. Numerous times, he had the chance to either gain large amounts of money illegally or cheat on Peg with some hot babe with nobody knowing. Amazingly, most of the time he chose the more moral choice. (The rare times his didn't, which may have been a case of Depending on the Writer, some Deus ex Machina was sure to ruin his plans. Usually.)
Hadestown has a few songs about this, but "Hey Little Songbird" and "When The Chips Are Down" probably fit the trope best
See, people get mean when the chips are down...
Referenced in Within Temptation's Utopia, suggesting a less favourable view of humanity;
Why does it rain, rain, rain down on Utopia?
And when the lights die down, telling us who we are.
Religion and Mythology
A corrupt official in ancient China once went to a more scrupulous one to talk him into something unethical. "Nobody will ever know!" says the corrupt one. The scrupulous one disagrees: "Heaven knows. Earth knows. You know. I know."
A man wants to steal some wheat from his neighbors, so he goes out one night, taking his young daughter with him to keep a lookout. He goes around from field to field, cutting a little here and a little there, and now and then his daughter calls out, "Father, someone sees you!" — but each time when he looks up, they're alone. Finally he asks why she keeps saying that, and she replies, "Someone sees you from above."
There's a joke about a robber breaking into a house when someone says: "Stop it! I'm warning you: Jesus is watching you!". Turns out it's the family parrot. It introduces itself as Moses, which makes the robber laugh and wonder, "What kind of idiots would name a parrot Moses?" "The same people who call a rottweiler 'Jesus'" answers the parrot.
Colossians instructs slaves and employees to do the work you're meant to do at all times, not only when your earthy masters' eye is on you.
Jesus expresses the corollary of this in Matthew 6:2.
"So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full."
In an unusually literal use of this trope, Paranoia has taken to specifically encouraging the GM to have the lights go out at some point during the mission (easily justified due to Alpha Complex's perennial state of disrepair), preferably after the PCs have had time to build up grudges and conflicting goals.
The song "Who Am I?": Valjean could easily let another man hang in his place, freeing him from worry about Javert forever and no one would ever know. But he'll know, and God will know, so he stops the execution and reveals himself, forcing him to disrupt his now peaceful and productive life to go back on the run from the law.
When Valjean is given the duty of executing Javert as a spy. He could easily kill the only man who knows him personally enough to track him down — but without even thinking about it this time, he fakes Javert's execution and lets him go free, giving him his address for good measure so the two of them can settle things later. Javert's inability to understand Valjean's morality ends up driving him to suicide.
Anachronox has a recursion. This trope is played straight on party member. Player can miss it, being normally too genre savvy and desensitised to think the game has had variety to offer. Thus, this trope gets played on the player as well. In Rho's specific part after freeing Paco, a native tribal elder figure tasks you with finding four golden leaves of ritualistic value to proceed. Options are numerous. You find some lying around or growing on plants, collect silver as well to exchange for gold, collect berries to exchange for leaves, refuse giving up what you found for charity. But you just can't get four unless you steal some, and/or unless you spoof some unripe berries for ripe (you are aware that unripe ones cause sickness). If you refrain from resorting to ill means and naturally come up short, you can report back to note a dialogue option that you "can't find any more." It gets accepted! You proceed. Once out of the gate, you won't find a difference in the rest of the game.
Crops up in The Elder Scrolls series quite regularly. It's easy to steal anything that's not nailed down, including the life savings of some poor old woman. It's even easier to meet a travelling merchant out in the wilderness, where nobody will notice what happens next...
In Grandia II, Ryudo is sent to prove his worth to become the next super-powered-being to defeat the 'evil Valmar'. Along the road he is questioned and every answer he gives is twisted to be perceived as a selfish desire. The next shot has him in darkness transformed into a demon with a voice telling him to embrace it. However thanks to the The Power of Friendship he's freed and ends up with the sword to defeat evil.
In Neverwinter Nights, the canonical Player Character fought hard to prevent Aribeth's execution, despite the fact that the entire leadership of the city was arrayed against him and Aribeth's state of mind made her believe she deserved it.
In Betrayal at Krondor, the dark elf Gorath's initial act of joining the humans to prevent the war his people are planning against them qualifies. He knows in advance that it will strip him of his rank as chieftain, that his own people and what remains of his friends and family won't consider him anything more than a traitor and a coward for thinking of cooperating with humans, and the humans themselves will at best distrust him and at worst have him deliver his message on a rack. He goes anyway.
In Persona 3, during the month of December the Player Character and party are asked to decide whether to try to fight against the supposedly unstoppable End of the World as We Know It, or to kill Ryoji, the avatar of the embodiment of death, which still won't prevent the Fall but will erase their memories of everything related to it and thus allow them to live out their remaining few months in peace, unaware of what's coming. Each party member separately resolves for themselves that they'd rather fight, but the ultimate choice comes down to the protagonist, and if you choose to go against the rest of the party's decision and kill Ryoji, nobody will ever even remember that it was an issue. Unsurprisingly, doing so leads to the game's Bad Ending.
In Persona 4, a crucial decision late in the game is centered around this. A loved one has just passed away and you and your friends are in the same room with the person responsible. You have the option of murdering him by throwing him into the TV, with the knowledge that no one would ever find out that you were the ones who did it. Of course, just like in Persona 3, this leads to the bad ending. Instead, it's staying true to your principles (you are the Investigation Team, and you swore to get to the bottom of the case and find the real culprit) that puts you on the road to the good ending.
Coldly discussed by Tayama in Shin Megami Tensei IV. To him, humans are so weak, no one ever chooses the higher moral option in the dark. This means he views his totalitarian regime, backed by Yakuza, as entirely in everyone's best interests; by forcing everyone to cooperate to help each other, even in the face of the monstruous acts he and his organization commit, he is indeed improving the life of everyone.
In Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Sam Fisher is tasked with destroying the wreckage of a downed US plane by calling in an air strike in order to prevent sensitive information from falling into enemy hands. He has the choice whether to spend precious time carrying the two unconscious pilots to a safe distance first or not, and doing so causes a new guard to spawn and happen upon him at a very inopportune moment (as when carrying a person Fisher cannot use any of his weapons). However, if he chooses to do so anyway he is confronted with this trope by his superior.
Lambert: You don't even exist Fisher, you can't get a medal for this.
Fisher: Medals don't help me sleep at night.
In Thief: Deadly Shadows, at the end of one level, you find a secret stash of gold left by late Captain Moira for his wife. It's a pretty penny and you don't get any penalties later in the game for taking it. In fact, your only deterrent is a brief popup message "Mrs. Moira needs that money to survive" but logic tells you that she probably won't find the stash in her current condition anyway (you meet her earlier in the level: she is utterly broken by grief). So, that's the point where you learn what you are in the dark. Garrett doesn't make any comments either way.
Sadly the loot requirement on the highest difficulty level makes completing the mission impossible without taking the gold.
There is a minor deterrent to taking the loot: The following night, a thug loyal to the widow can be found skulking in front of the door to Garrett's apartment building, looking to avenge the theft. He's just another Mook, however, and not much of a threat.
The second game was the part of the series where the designers introduced the tests of character. While some actions are obvious (don't kill the guy you're fighting just to get approval from the Eternal Order of Fighters), some are very much less so (while racing to save the world from the destructive power about to be unleashed and you successfully disarm the Dragon blocking your path, you can kill him and no one will ever know, and in fact will probably praise you for going as fast as possible...but you'll know that you killed an unarmed, helpless man). Later games made the choices a bit more obvious, but there are some surprisingly ambiguous decisions.
In true keeping with this trope, there's never any real reward for being 'good' about it. Meanwhile, the reward for being evil is sometimes impressive...so, just how 'Grey' ARE you, Warden?
The Desire Demon possessing Connor. The wholly right and moral decision is to refuse any deal and fight the demon/scare it into leaving for good. The only reward is some experience and whatever loot it drops. What do you get for agreeing to the deal? The only chance to unlock Blood Magic. And the only ones who would know either way are you and the demon. Though in that case there is another choice: if you have Master Coercion, you can intimidate the demon into bribing you to let her leave without a fight.
Unlocking a class in Dragon Age: Origins permanently unlocks it for every playthrough regardless of the decision. There was nothing preventing you from unlocking it and then immediately resetting it and solving the quest in a different way.
The game's most pivotal moment. You find out that the Grey Warden who kills the Archdemon must die with it, but Morrigan privately offers a way out through Deus Sex Machina, and absorbing the Archdemon's soul into the baby conceived. However, she refuses to tell you what she plans on doing with the child afterwards.
Mega Man 7: Rock has beaten Dr. Wily again and Wily starts to beg like normal. Rock then charges his buster and says he's going to do what he should have done years ago. Wily points out that robots can't harm a human being. While the US version has Rock declare he's more than a robot and looks like he'll do it until the fortress self destructs, the Japanese version has Rock pause long enough for the fortress to collapse.
In Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy, Kain Highwind is a morally ambiguous Anti-Hero who has spent the story up to the final tale killing off his allies (or as the game says, "puts them to sleep") so that they'll be safe when the cycle of war begins again, rather than risk them fighting and dying against the new threat of the Manikins. Needless to say, no one is very pleased with him over this and several don't trust him even as he accompanies them to the portal the Manikins are coming from to help them close it. Along the way they're stopped by Exdeath and a group of Manikins and Kain stays behind to hold them off while the group continues on. In a bonus scene, Golbez approaches Kain afterwards and tells him that if he goes to join his friends in their Last Stand, he'll die and no one will remember his bravery. Or he can stay behind now and live to the next cycle, and again no one will know. Kain goes to help them.
Kain says "put them to sleep" because once everyone on one side dies, all deceased fighters are resurrected and the fight starts over. Unless you die fighting Manikins.
Mass Effect 1 gives this to the last survivors of its Precursors, the Protheans. The last dozen or so sapients in the entire galaxy work feverishly for decades to reprogram the Keepers, seemingly benevolent drones who are critical to the Reapers' cycle of galactic extermination. Then they take a one-way trip to the Citadel, the key in the Reapers' trap and the center of galactic civilization. Without food, water, any ability to sustain a breeding population, or anyone to judge them, they faced a grim death from starvation so future generations of sapients could avert the disaster that destroyed their civilization. And the Council denies their existence. But Shepard will kick ass, take names, go to hell and back and shake hands with the Illusive Man himself to make sure it was not in vain.
The whole of Mass Effect 2 is like this, since 99.9% of the galaxy thinks Shepard is dead. Happens to Shepard him/herself in the ArrivalDLC. You have a choice to warn the batarian colonists that they have to evacuate, or just contact the Normandy. The choice itself has no real consequences (the warning communication is blocked anyway), but at the time, Shepard could conceivably be sacrificing him/herself for three hundred thousand civilians.
Jacob lampshades this trope when telling Shepard about his proudest career moment, which the Alliance covered up for the sake of not inducing a panic. He's comfortable with it, though.
Jacob: Good deed's like pissing yourself in dark pants. Warm feeling, but no one notices.
Jacob's father faced a situation ten years before the game that occurred in relative "dark". The ship he was serving on crashed into an unknown planet in the ass end of the galaxy, killing the Captain. Being the First Mate, Jacob's father took over, with the help of other officers of the ship. The short version is, it did not end well.
Mass Effect 3 has this with the offer that the Salarian Dalatrass offers you regarding curing the Genophage However depending on which party members survived previous games, your decision can become public, with unfortunate consequences if you took the Renegade path.
The end decision in Mass Effect 3 can be seen as this if you pick the Destroy option and are implied to survive. After all, with all artificial life in the galaxy destroyed, including EDI and the geth, there's no one else alive who knows that Shepard was informed of the consequences of the action and did it anyway. The entire choice is very much What You Are in the Dark: it's about which principle Shepard most wishes to uphold (or, conversely, is most loathe to throw away) when faced with an explicit choice and absolutely no oversight — whether they most want to end the war cleanly, take control of the most powerful force in the galaxy, usher in a new and unforeseen era of existence, or go down spitting defiance to the last breath. Even better, you can justify each decision as the moral "Right" and "Wrong," so the decision is entirely up to you. Bioware doesn't tell you which one is right.
In Space Quest I, upon encountering the Sarien ship that massacred the Arcada's crew and has the Artifact of Doom that they are going to inflict on the galaxy. It's a massive ship full of hostile aliens, against one not-so-Almighty Janitor. The pilot droid wisely suggests hauling tail. It's Nonstandard Game Over if you take him up on it.
The companions' reply depends on their Relationship Values with The Nameless One. Running through their dialogue and sidequests, and being a generally decent person will win you their support, but they will take that chance to go turncoat if you've been neglectful or a total jerk.
Pablo: I've got more money than you've ever seen! What say you? Join me, and take a seat of power at my side.
Occurs in the flashbacks of L.A. Noire. After returning home from Okinawa, several Marines were upset when they saw stories that Phelps was the LAPD's Golden Boy, and resolved that since they had been denied fame and fortune, they would take it by stealing the supplies on the boat they were returning on. One character notes that they can get away with it and do good, but another character (who they all respect) tells them that he will not stop them, but if they actually do it, they are dead to him. They fail the test.
Touhou: Reimu Hakurei has to take this in stride. Solving more prominent incidents like the Scarlet Mist (Embodiment of Scarlet Devil), evil-spirit geysers (Subterranean Animism), and the earthquakes (Scarlet Weather Rhapsody) are things she can probably make realistic claims about; but, in general, no one really knows about most of Reimu's efforts to keep the peace in Gensokyo and one of the two (known) reporters in Gensokyo tells her to her face that she has no concrete proof of any of her glories. (Her grouchy attitude when she's off solving incidents doesn't help matters, either.) Hakurei Shrine getting no visiting worshipers is canon.
In a tongue-in-check sort of way, the fan-made list of Touhou games described as atrocities caused by Reimu lampshades this problem.
The Bard's Tale has this for the ending, where the Evil ending where he sides with the Demon Queen to enslave the world is the Bard's personal happy ending while the Good ending has him save the world but starting back where he was at the beginning as a poor conman. Alternatively, he can just walk away and party with the zombies.
Star Trek Online has the mission Operation Gamma, where your player captain is abandoned to die by a Ferengi captain who was supposed to guide you to the Dominion, only for her to end up fleeing right into the arms of a Dominion force. When your ship arrives, the Vorta in charge of that force declares that by their logic they should kill you both for trespassing, but since you'd actually been looking for them in the first place, he offers to help you — if you kill her. The mission progresses either way with only a slight difference in NPC dialogue, but if you kill her, the Vorta declares, "Now I see what kind of officer you are..."
In Hajime Saito's route in Hakuōki, the trope plays out complete with stock dialogue in a confrontation between Saito and Kazama. Saito is hopelessly outmatched and grievously wounded, and Chizuru tries to save him by turning herself over to Kazama, who smugly suggests that Saito can tell his superiors that he tried to protect Chizuru but was overpowered. Saito retorts that he would know, and that he doesn't surrender to anyone.
FTL: Faster Than Light doesn't have an explicit Karma Meter, but many events will test your morality. Do you take the bribe of a pirate and let him go after some ship, or do you take him on? When a slaver offers gifts in exchange for letting them live, do you accept and let him live to continue his dirty work, or do you finish the job? Do you help when asked for it, even if it may cost you health, ammo or crew? There's no one around who will judge you, only your conscience. Choose, skipper.
During the final part of Grim Fandango the protagonist, Manny Calavera, finds himself alone at the Number Nine train station, where he can approach the Tunnel to the Ninth Underworld. He briefly muses that he could just walk through it (which he technically has the right to do at this point - his adventures do count towards the four-year journey that the less "saintly" souls must complete before they can leave the Land of the Dead). However, he promptly refuses to do this, because there are still other souls in need of his help. Considering that getting out of the Land of the Dead was Manny's initial goal (a goal he was willing to achieve by stealing a client from a fellow Reaper, which is how the whole mess started), that indicates a pretty strong Character Development.
In an odd variation, Manny receives a Golden Ticket for the Number Nine as reward for services rendered - though he no longer needs one.
In The Sims 3, if your character is in the political career track, he/she can choose to steal funds from the campaign fund when given the opportunity. You will not get caught.
In the first installment, Rufus is given the option to take over Cletus' life, including Goal. Instead, he decides to save a planet full of trash and people who hate him.
In Chaos on Deponia,Rufus owns up to a major lie, knowing he might lose Goal by doing so.
Comes to a head in the finale of Goodbye, Deponia, where in order to prevent Goal from dying and make sure Elysium is informed that people are still living on Deponia, Rufus claims to be Cletus, justifying it by going on about how selfish and unchanging Rufus is, and finally dropping from the highboat and falling to his death.
For reference, an article reports that the majority of players try to do the right thing, even if it makes less sense from a logical perspective. They also report on subtle decisions, such as players stopping an action once they're being watched.
In The Godfather II, the sidequest targets you can choose include both scum who deserve some Pay Evil unto Evil and good or otherwise normal people who the questgiver wants harmed. There's no explicit Karma Meter or ingame consequences, though, and no one will comment on whether you choose to play the Vigilante Man, be the villain or do some mix of the two because It Amused Me. All up to your conscience, signor.
Shown during a cutscene following the final heist in Grand Theft Auto V. The armoured car driver they threatened into assisting with the heist has to be dealt with. Trevor, of course, wants to shoot him because he knows too much. Michael tosses him a bar of gold, pointing out that if he takes it, he's now part of the robbery and has as much to lose as the actual thieves, so it's in his best interest to keep his mouth shut. The guard takes the gold.
This trope could very well be the Central Theme for Dishonored. The Outsider gives selected individuals his mark and lets them do as they please with the new powers they have. Most people are shown to use their powers for self-gain, and becoming deeply corrupt and insane as a result. Corvo gets the mark early on, and it's up to the player to either use his powers to easily cut a swath across the city and murder all of his targets...or to hold back and preserve as many lives as possible. Doing the former will inevitably lead to the downfall of Dunwall.
In an arc in Fans!, Jesse was revealed to be Jesspin, secretly loyal to the time-traveling conqueror General Maximiliana. But "Jesse" is still his core personality, and while Jesspin is imprisoned by AEGIS, "Jesse" is secretly using Jesspin's mind and body to further Rikk Oberf's plans for the future. When Jesspin tells "Jesse" that no one will know he isn't a traitor, "Jesse" smiles and says, "That's what will make this fun. I do my best work in the dark."
Belkar Bitterleaf sort of has one of these here. He saved Hinjo in the end, but only because he might not be able to kill people later otherwise. This nets him good karma as he soon gets a horde of goblins to murdalize.
Also, when Vaarsuvius accepts a Deal with the Devil, the devils (more accurately "fiends") in question state that there might some alignment-related feedback (in other words, making the character more evil than otherwise would be normal). It turns out that the fiends lied, that the effects of soul-splice on the characters alignment are little more than cheerleaders in terms of alignment-change, and that all of the actions taken were all naturally thought of and committed by the character. They aptly describe it as giving someone a drink and telling them it's alcoholic when it really isn't, and the person behaves drunk because they think it's alcoholic, but they weren't drunk at all in the first place.
Just to drive the point further, before they even take the deal, the Fiends point out there's a way for V to save their family without owing them a single thing. The only catch is that it involves other people (some of whom Vaarsuvius has just had a massive falling out with) doing all the actual work, and wouldn't even be able to claim credit for the idea. But hey, "We won't tell anyone there was another way to save your children if you don't."
Susan from Sire delivers quite the speech to Anna after murdering their uncle. They are the same person. If Anna didn't want it to happen than Susan wouldn't have done it.
I'm a Marvel... And I'm a DC has Superman go through this in "After Hours". Either he can do nothing to stop Lex, resulting in a world with no major competing comics, or he can stay trapped in a pocket dimension forever. Anybody remotely familiar with Superman knows what he picks. Thankfully, his choice's results...
In Anachronauts, a genie tempts each of the members of the titular team with just such a temptation, as one might expect.
Worm. Taylor has the power to control bugs, that's it. Leviathan has just shrugged off many of the strongest parahumans in the setting and is now attacking a shelter full of civilians. Nobody else is around and her tracker is broken. She's heavily injured, already considered a villain and the civilians include a teacher who stood by as her life was made a living hell. What doesshe do?
In the final episode of Shephard's Mind, Shephard admits to himself that he'll most likely never escape Black Mesa, and nobody would ever know what he did, much less be aware he even existed. But despite that, he's going to take as many aliens down with him as possible.
In To Boldly Flee, The Nostalgia Criticsacrifices himself to both allow his friend's spirit to be at peace and also to bring stability to the Plot Hole. The only other person who knows what he has done is Film Brain.
After being held captive by a family who kept feeding him muscle relaxants and making him rewatch his old movies (including one he shot while getting the news that his mother had committed suicide), Donnie DuPre from Demo Reel refuses to hurt them or become like them, and only twitchily mentions his experience in passing to his friends.
The members of the Knights Of Fandom each promise to never use the anonymity of the internet to hurt other people. However, because of said anonymity, there is no way for the organization to actually police its members. The operation relies entirely on the integrity of the individual members.
In RWBY, Jaune Arc proves his mettle as a hero by rescuing Cardin Winchester, The Bully who had been making his life a living hell, from an Ursa. Ruby, Weiss, and Pyrrha were there and about to intervene before Jaune came to the rescue, but Jaune and Cardin didn't see them and thought they were alone. Cardin ends up grateful that Jaune didn't leave him to die. In contrast, Cardin's friends cowardly ran away.
Three Worlds Collide has an extreme example of this. In the epilogue, the crew of the Impossible Possible World is nine minutes away from being utterly annihilated by a supernova. Nothing they can do can possibly have any consequences on anything outside that tiny area of time and space. HEAVILY lampshaded; half of the chapter is about them coming to grips with that reality.
"Ah," the Master of Fandom said, "so I guess this is when we find out who we really are." He paused for a moment, then shrugged. "I don't seem to be anyone in particular. Oh well."
Archer has a parody of this, when Pam is desperately trying to get someone (anyone) in the office to have sex with her. She actually uses the words "Nobody will know", even if she's got a dolphin puppet on her hand while saying it. Needless to say, Brett, the man she propositions, turns her down (he uses the "I'll know" response.) Even more ironic considering in the same episode, he paid Lana $600 simply to brag about having sex with her, not actually doing the deed.
Additionally, Pam is the biggest gossip in the office. Any piece of information that comes through her ears spreads faster than the common cold through a kindergarten class. And yes, she's ISIS's HR rep, meaning that her job role is keeping everyone's embarrassing personal information.
In The Spectacular Spider-Man, Flash Thompson learns that during a football tournament his team won one of the players was taking a performance-enhancing drug. He's told that by that very player, in a one-on-one conversation, and he knows, that should the word get out, their championship (that he ruined his leg achieving) would be disqualified. The word still gets out... from Flash himself, because to him an unfair victory isn't worth much.
Then there is, of course, Spider-Man confronting Uncle Ben's killer becoming this for the show. As seen in episode 12, Peter had a good chance to let the burglar fall to his death, but saved him because he knew Uncle Ben wouldn't approve.
Hey Arnold! gives us Helga Pataki, who's ostinably a bully. However, in the Christmas episode, she gives up a pair of boots (that she wanted more than anything, and that her mother said "was the last pair in the city" and waited in line all day for them), to a man in exchange for him helping track down the daughter of Mr. Hyunh for Arnold. And Arnold has no idea it was her, no one knows she was the one who did it.
The "Between Brothers" episode of Thundercats2011 has this. When a young Lion-O and Tygra are playing as kids, Lion-O is crossing a tree trunk bridge over a pit. Tygra, as a child, breaks the edge of the bridge with his foot causing Lion-O to fall in. Young Lion-O doesn't see him do this (although present day Lion-O does, as he watches this memory) and falls into the pit. Tygra appears to abandon him, so if Lion-O were to die down there, no one would know it was Tygra's fault . . . although present day Tygra reveals that he did feel guilty afterward and immediately ran to their father for help.
In an episode of Danny Phantom, Danny foils some minions attempt to steal jewelry from a store, but when they take off, all the security guards see is him holding the loot. When he leaves, one guard says to the other, "You want to keep this stuff and blame the ghost boy?" The other just sighs and says, "You're under arrest."
In the Futurama episode "The Inhuman Torch", Bender is accused of starting fires in order to put them out and look like a hero, but it was actually started by a fire creature from the sun (whom Bender names Flamo). In order to keep Flamo from burning the Earth into a small star, Bender takes it to the Arctic Circle, where no one will find him, know about the fate he spared them from, and most importantly, he won't be hailed as a hero.