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"Yesterday afternoon, they gave me the order to send more than 20,000 Jews out of the ghetto, and if not — "We will do it!" [...] I must perform this difficult and bloody operation — I must cut off limbs in order to save the body itself. I must take children because, if not, others may be taken as well — God forbid."
Chaim Rumkovsky, Judenrat Leader of the Łódź Ghetto, Speech of 4/9/1942 explaining decision to deport all members under 10 and over 65 to Treblinka

Contemplating killing people so that others can live longer.

In Science Fiction, the Ur-Example is that of a spaceship or Escape Pod which is Almost Out of Oxygen (or food or fuel). But then someone calculates that if they had one fewer crewmember, they just might make it back safely...

Many incidents of this trope have occurred in real life, such as sailors in lifeboats running out of food or freeboard. These seldom involved any fine calculations, just desperate people willing to do anything to live a bit longer. Those who travel on spaceships are presumed to be a different breed, or perhaps they're just more educated; therefore expect a Lottery of Doom, Drawing Straws or Heroic Sacrifice.

See also The Needs of the Many, Emergency Cargo Dump (the non-lethal version), No Party Like a Donner Party, Cut the Safety Rope, Trial by Friendly Fire, We Have Reserves, and Restricted Rescue Operation. See Someone Has to Die for the voluntary variant of this trope.

Note: Please do not include discussions on the short story "The Cold Equations" or for the novel trilogy Star Trek: Cold Equations here. Post them on the discussion page for those stories.

As this is a Death Trope, unmarked spoilers abound. Beware.


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    Fan Works 
  • In Background Pony, Lyra is eventually faced with the Sadistic Choice of allowing herself to be forgotten forever, or restoring her existence at the cost of erasing everything she achieved — something that would put the whole world at risk.
  • Fallout: Equestria: Of the robotic sort. Littlepip and Co stumble upon the remains of a Stable devoid of life, and perusing the computer reveals why: A stray bullet from a child practicing shooting hit their water supply, slowly leaking its contents over the course of weeks. The AI in charge noticed this, and deduced the most efficient solution to be methodically halving the population to accommodate dwindling supplies until it finally went empty, and the population dropped to zero.
  • This is the dark side of Doctor Strange's history manipulating methodology in Child of the Storm, with the end goal of stopping Thanos' omnicidal rampage. Generally, he's good enough at manipulating the timeline that this isn't necessary. At times, though, it's explicitly compared to triage, and at points it is also explicitly noted that by refusing to step in, he lets a lot of people suffer and die for the sake of ensuring the Earth will be ready.
  • Danganronpa Re:Programmed has one of the culprits convinced to commit murder through this line of logic: while they aren't keen to kill anyone, the idea that they may be able to retrieve help for the rest is enough to sway them, however reluctantly, towards making that sacrifice.
  • In When Reason Fails, when Izuku expresses his dislike of Yagi not being willing to help Tsuyu adapt to life among humans, the teacher points out that, yes, he could do that - but, apart from the fact that Tsuyu may actually not want said help, the time and resources spent helping her would be time and resources not spent in helping many other people.
  • Vow of Nudity: In one extended flashback, a slave, a soldier, and a scientist are the sole remaining survivors of a disastrous island expedition, and eventually reach the beach with a makeshift raft that can only carry two of them. With hostile wildlife inbound, the group must quickly choose who gets to escape and who gets left behind to die. (In the end, the soldier kills the scientist, and then the slave kills the soldier.)

    Film - Animated 
  • In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Peter B. Parker, Gwen Stacy, Peni Parker, Spider-Man Noir, and Spider-Ham all come from other universes, and dimensional incompatibilities mean that they cannot survive indefinitely in Miles's universe. They have a way back to their own dimensions in the form of the control goober for the collider, but they also need to destroy it to prevent the multiverse from collapsing, and that has to be done in Miles's dimension. Miles insists that he can handle the job, but because he's only been a superhero for a day at that point, nobody believes him, meaning that the plan ends up being that one of them will send the other four home, then destroy the machine, sacrificing themselves for the multiverse. Naturally, these being superheroes, all five insist that it should be them who stays behind. It ends up not being necessary because Miles takes a level or three in badass just in time for the climax, however.
  • In The Transformers: The Movie, the Decepticons' ship is filled with wounded from their failed attack on Autobot City and its weighing down their ship during its escape. Starscream, being Starscream, tells them to dump their wounded, which includes their leader Megatron, on the grounds that they won't make it back to Cybertron anyway. Big mistake: they end up drifting into the direction of Unicron and are turned into his heralds.

  • A joke that surfaces with every election: The President, the Pope and a Boy Scout are on a plane when the pilot dies of a heart attack. Every passenger grabs a parachute and jumps, but the last three realize there's only two parachutes left. The President grabs a handle and says "I'm sorry, but as the leader of the free world, my life is worth more than yours", and jumps. The Pope looks at the Boy Scout and says "Take mine, my son." The Boy Scout says "Don't worry, your Holiness, he grabbed my backpack by mistake!"
  • In a similar setting, a plane carrying a delegation of diplomats suffers an engine loss and has to lighten its load.
    British Diplomat: God save the Queen! [Jumps from plane].
    French Diplomat: Viva la France! [Jumps from plane].
    Texan Diplomat: Remember the Alamo! [Throws out the Mexican]. note 

  • Referenced in the song "Nautical Disaster" by The Tragically Hip.
    I was in a lifeboat designed for ten
    Ten and only
    And anything that systematic would get you hated
    It's not a deal nor a test nor a love of something fated
    The selection was quick, the crew was picked
    In an order
    And those left in the water were kicked off our pantlegs
    And we headed for home
  • Steve Taylor's "Lifeboat". An elementary school teacher leads her class in a thought experiment of being stuck in an overcrowded lifeboat, and asks the students which of the various "undesirables" should be thrown overboard. The kids learn the lesson a little too well: applying the message to their current situation, the kids decide the teacher is dead weight and throw her out the classroom window.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Battletech, in the Wars of Reaving Clans Steel Viper, and Star Adder just obtain a great deal of isorla(spoils of war) from fleeing Clan Snow Raven fleet. When they didn't have enough room for all their isorla, they decided to throw out clan civilians out the air lock.
  • Paranoia:
    • One mission includes a Running Gag with malfunctioning elevators to the 99th floor, one of which is airtight and slo-o-o-ow. Sure, the PCs could just use their lasers to ventilate the wall - and face a fine for damaging Computer property - but, this being Paranoia, they're just as likely to instead ventilate the traitors who were using up all the air.
    • Another mission gives the PCs an ever-expanding authority role over a project driving all of Alpha Complex toward mass starvation. Near the end, someone may notice a politically-discredited but effective device that converts any organic material into food.
      "Gentlemen, how many citizens does this sector really need?"
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!: The art for Painful Decision shows Ojama Yellow as a lifeguard trying to decide who to save when Ojama Green and Ojama Black are both being chased by a shark.

    Video Games 
  • If the RNG in 60 Seconds! is particularly unkind, you might have to choose a family member to let die of starvation, dehydration, or illness.
  • Fate/Grand Order:
    • Mephistopheles puts Jeanne d'Arc in an illusion where she is on a ship that is fleeing a disaster. They run into her mother and Pierre Cauchon, the bishop who had her burned at the stake, but the ship only has room for one more person. Mephistopheles clearly expected her to leave Pierre to die, and this would prove she has darkness in her heart out of a need for revenge. Instead, Jeanne gives up her seat so that both her mother and Pierre can live. Pierre refuses to thank her and calls her a witch. Jeanne merely comments she expected that, and Mephistopheles comments that the real one would react the same way.
    • In the Camelot Singularity, the Lion King believes the Incineration of Humanity cannot be stopped, so she starts a project called the Holy Selection. She will choose 500 people she deems worthy and absorb them into Rhongomyniad so they can survive. She is emotionless and does not care about everyone else that will die. The heroes end up stopping her.
    • In the Norse Lostbelt, humanity is barely surviving. Due to lack of resources, people are exiled from villages when they turn 15 (25 if they managed to bear a child), where they will surely be killed by the giants roaming outside.
  • Mass Effect: During the time the Reapers were cleaning up after themselves, the AI Vigil was tasked with keeping an eye on a bunker full of Protheans in stasis, waiting for the Reapers to leave. However, in that time, the bunker's systems began running low on power, forcing Vigil to turn off the life support for the less "essential" personnel. Agreeing with Vigil that this was a necessary move (which it kind of was, since it's only because of that choice Shepard has a chance of stopping the Reapers at all) nets the player a few Renegade points.
  • In Mass Effect 3 this trope is discussed by Shepard and Garrus, calling it "the ruthless calculus of war." Shepard is tasked with making many hard decisions in the war with the Reapers, including allowing some planets to fall in order to save others. Shepard invokes this in one of their many speeches:
    Shepard: It's hard enough fighting a war. But it's worse knowing that no matter how hard you try... you can't save them all.
  • No matter what his or her status, you always have the option to just up and kill a party member in Organ Trail. Of course you'll inevitably have to kill a member who's been bitten, but you can also choose to kill a perfectly healthy member just to have one less person to divide your limited food and medical supplies with. They'll come back as an enemy toward the end of the game if you do though, you monster.
  • In Sands of Destruction, a desperate and depressed Kyrie decides that if Naja kills him, Morte and the others will be able to continue to live because he can't destroy the world if he's dead. An interesting case where this trope meets Heroic Sacrifice.
  • In Super Robot Wars 30, this is one of several types of questions the villain periodically asks Captain Mitsuba throughout the campaign, with the game's ending determined by her decisions. Taking both routes, however, reveals that both options are really just an excuse for the villain to do whatever he wants: either humanity is unable to deal with this trope, in which case it's too foolish to let live, or it can deal with it, which makes it too dangerous to let live.

    Visual Novels 
  • Played With in Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, in which the nine characters have nine hours to find their way off of a cruise ship. Along the way, they must solve puzzles behind numbered doors, which only three to five people may enter. They may escape when they make it through a door with a nine on it, and some of the characters realize early on that no more than five people can escape. Later subverted when the doors with the nines are found, and the protagonist contemplates that the purpose of there being two was to inflict regret upon those who sacrificed members after doing the math. However, this is soon double subverted when, after the two doors, there is another room with a single door with a nine; characters who are left behind after that will still have a chance to escape, but they don't know that when deciding who passes through the door. Triple Subverted, because...well, the author is like that. The door with Nine will ONLY open if every single person is alive to do it, except the one person who was unavoidably killed.
  • In one ending of Ever17, Tsugumi and Takeshi find an escape module with which to leave LeMU, but it turns out not to be able to carry both of them to the surface, so one of them ends up having to sacrifice themselves for the other. In case you were morbidly curious as to who self-sacrifices for whom, Takeshi sacrifices himself so Tsugumi can live.
  • Discussed in Your Turn to Die, as Kanna advocates for her own death through the reasoning that compared to Sou, she is expendable. Ironically, more good comes out of ignoring her request and killing off Sou.

  • Narbonic parodies "The Cold Equations" here; when the pilot is Dave and the cute stowaway is Mell, it's not the stowaway who's going out the airlock.
  • Quentyn Quinn, Space Ranger devotes an entire arc to tearing into the trope namer. According to the author only an over-regulated state monopoly (and not, say, a corporate lowest bidder) would ever use death traps like the shuttle in the original story. Author's politics aside, no one in their right mind would ever design a shuttle with zero margin for error—and even if some emergency situation did pop up that required such a risk, it shouldn't be happening often enough for legal precedent to require the murder of the stowaway.

    Web Original 
  • In Swan Song, part of the Roll Play series of Dungeons & Dragons livestreamed shows, this is the core of the plot of the 8th "episode" or week. After a couple of botched jumps on already-low life support by the ship's navigator, the crew math-out that they have significantly fewer person-days of life support than they need for their five-man ship. The doctor of the ship has to put first their escorted passenger, then the rest of the crew bar the navigator, including himself, into a risky experimental coma to preserve the little remaining life support (cutting resource usage into a tenth). Piling on the problem, they are also low on fuel with their method of manual fuel extraction destroyed, so they discuss and realize that their only option is to go to a modern-day-era tech-level system and hope they can refuel on the desolate refueling station until they find a higher-tech system that offers a way to resuscitate the comatose crew... assuming they can even be put into a coma with the combination of space-morphine and dice rolls. Miraculously, they do... but the navigator then realizes that while he made it to the system, he doesn't have the life support to fly to a fuel station and must instead crash-land onto the only inhabited planet.
  • The short film "Vacuity" involves a man on a damaged space station who's forced to choose between saving himself by ejecting the escape pod he's in (its airlock will open in a few minutes and due to the damage suffered, ejecting is the only way to abort the opening) or sacrificing himself so that the rest of the station's crew can cut their way into the escape pod and use it. Complicating matters is the fact that he can't contact the rest of the station, so he has no idea if the rest of the crew is even still alive. Ultimately, he decides to let himself die after he manages to hear the other crewmembers trying to get in to help him, feeling that he can't be as selfish as to let others die so he can live.

    Western Animation 
  • Princess Bubblegum makes the decision to sacrifice James to distract the zombies so the other three can escape in the Adventure Time episode "James". Comes across as a harsh moment for Bubblegum because she chooses James as the least valuable person to save, rather than him volunteering.
  • Played for comedy in a season five episode of Archer. When Ray, while piloting the plane he, Archer, and Cyril are on, realizes they won't make it to the runway because there's only enough fuel to carry the weight of two people, Archer attempts to convince Cyril to jump out, but Cyril pitches the shipment of guns they were carrying off the side.
    • The season four finale sees Archer, Lana, Cyril and Ray trapped in a room quickly filling with water and only three sets of scuba gear to swim out and to the surface. The only option is for one of them to drown and die, hopefully temporarily, while the other three use the scuba suits to get themselves to safety and resuscitate the volunteer. Ray has robot legs, and Cyril is the next best swimmer, so the choice is between Lana and Archer. Archer immediately volunteers after Lana reveals she's pregnant.
  • In an episode of Futurama, this occurs when the Space Titanic is sinking into a black hole. The main characters board an escape pod, but the extra weight of Bender's Girl of the Week is causing the escape pod to drift towards the black hole, so she willingly lets go, saving the other characters. She is, of course, killed by falling into the black hole, and is never heard from (or even mentioned) again.
  • In King of the Hill during one of Cotton's war stories. His ship was attacked and was able to rescue Fatty, Stinky, and Brooklyn. A Zero fighter attacked him and he had to sacrifice Fatty to the sharks to swim to safety.
  • In the first episode of Mighty Ducks: The Animated Series, the Ducks' ship is traveling through dimensional limbo. Unfortunately, the ship is attacked and will be ripped apart unless some weight is jettisoned, and everything onboard is bolted down. Team leader Canard decides to jettison himself. Wildwing tries to stop him, but only manages to save the mask of Drake Dukane Canard wanted to hand him.
  • The nuclear shelter scenario is spoofed in The Simpsons episode "Bart's Comet". A comet is about to strike Springfield and so the entire towns' population tries to cram into Ned Flander's bomb shelter. They somehow manage this, but can't get the door closed. After arguing about who should be sacrificed Homer points out that the one skill future society doesn't need is the ability to sell left-handed products, so Ned gets thrown out of his own shelter. Eventually they all feel guilty about this decision (with Homer ironically inciting the guilt and expressing his contempt for everyone else having agreed with it), and so leave the shelter to die with him. The comet ends up breaking up to small bits in Springfield's toxic atmosphere anyway with the only actual damage it causes is piercing an unmanned hot air balloon which flies out of control...ironically, striking the bomb shelter and destroying it, which rather puts its usefulness against an intact comet in doubt.
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series faces this in the episode One Of Our Planets Is Missing.The alien of the week is a literal planet eater who has already demonstrated its capacity, and it is heading straight for a populated planet. There aren't enough ships (or time, for that matter) to evacuate everyone, so the planet's leader opts for saving the children.The population of the planet cooperates readily with the decision once they know what is happening.
    • In the same episode, Kirk makes a similar choice - there is a chance of stopping the Planet Eater and saving the doomed planet...but only by flying the Enterprise right into the creature and triggering self-destruct. Fortunately, it turned out that the monster in question was Obliviously Evil, and once convinced by Spock that the planets it is eating has living beings along, chooses to back off.
  • Star Trek: Prodigy has this as part of Jankom Pog's backstory. He was part of a Tellarite sleeper ship, and the ship's computer woke him up when things started breaking down. After what seems to have been days if not weeks of constant repair-work, he succeeds in saving the ship, but doing so has also used up more oxygen than expected and some got lost in a past breakdown. He decides to take an escape pod to let the other sleepers survive, which the computer proudly congratulates him on his sacrifice never being forgotten. Played for Laughs as the ship's computer is primitive and faulty and immediately forgets his name.

  • This scenario can also be about the evils of nuclear proliferation: there's six people but only room in the nuke shelter for five — whom do you throw out? There would usually be an obvious Red Shirt character like a priest, supposedly proving the irrelevance of organised religion. These scenarios never included the details that would matter in real life, such as who was your best buddy, who was an attractive member of the opposite sex or who was holding a firearm at the moment the crucial decision was made. It also doesn't factor in Values Dissonance. A devoutly religious person might well decide that having a priest is far more important than having a doctor, for instance. In the end, the resulting argument is intended to make everyone conclude that nuclear war is wrong as Take a Third Option.
  • There's an urban myth where people found the dead body of a man in the desert holding a piece of straw. In a line from his body are clothes and equipment. It's impossible for him to have walked and there are no tracks leading away from a vehicle. The solution to the mystery is that he was on a balloon that was descending over the desert; the passengers threw out everything they could to gain height, before realizing one person would have to go. The corpse drew the short straw.
  • Another scenario meant to teach to never judge a book by the cover uses this, and runs thusly: You are in a balloon that is rapidly losing height at a rate such that any impact will prove fatal for all aboard. The passengers are you, a geriatric old woman, a wealthy looking man in a suit, and a teenager about to inject himself. One person must be thrown out, but who? Turns out the old woman fought for women's rights, the businessman earns hundreds of dollars through fraud, and the teenager's actually injecting himself with insulin—he's diabetic. (Of course, many people would just pick the wealthy-looking man immediately, giving it a rather different message: Eat the Rich. Or specifically in this case. . . yeet the rich.)
  • The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment that makes use of a Cold Equation to gauge people's ethics: You see a runaway trolley moving toward five incapacitated people lying on the tracks, and you are standing next to the lever that will redirect the trolley onto a side track that misses the five people. However, there is one person lying on the side track. Your only two options are 1: pull the lever and kill the one person to save five, or 2: do nothing and let the five people on the main track die. According to numerous surveys, 90% of people opt to pull the lever. However, according to further surveys, that number drasticaly decreases if they are the ones who must push someone into the path of the oncoming trolley directly, or are given other various qualifiers, such as it being five drunks who shouldn't be on the tracks vs a railroad employee doing their job. note 

    Real Life 
  • NASA attempts to avert this trope by building in several levels of redundancies and overengineering into their space vehicles. Despite this, even the Shuttle launches had several windows where any malfunction or error would result in "LOV" (Loss Of Vehicle).
  • Apollo 13 ran into this dilemma. After an oxygen tank in the Service Module exploded, and the Command Module the crew was forced to use the life-support systems of the Lunar Excursion Module. Normally, this wouldn't have been a problem, but the LEM was only designed to support two people, not the full crew. note  The problem in this case was actually of a buildup of carbon dioxide instead of a lack of oxygen, since the LEM was designed to support its crew for several days on the lunar surface, including being completely vented out every time they needed to open the door. The carbon dioxide scrubbers on the LEM, however, were not up to the task of filtering the atmosphere with all three crewmembers inside, and the LEM's ports did not fit the CM's more powerful filters. Luckily, NASA was able to MacGyver up a solution that did not include murder, and all three returned safe and free of CO2 poisoning.
    • Apollo 13 also had a critical water shortage due to the command module water supply being the exhaust from oxygen-hydrogen fuel cells for which the oxygen had been lost. Fortunately, the return to Earth did not take so long to force any decision about who got to drink - although all three astronauts were significantly dehydrated by splashdown.
  • There are two famous court cases in The Common Law tradition involving survivors of shipwrecks who took to the lifeboats and were charged with murder for their subsequent actions. Both cases ended with the accused being convicted of murder (albeit with vastly reduced sentences), setting the precedent that self-preservation does not excuse the murder of an innocent.
    • United States vs. Holmes - a US federal case in which sailors forced passengers off an overcrowded lifeboat.
    • R vs. Dudley and Stephens - an English case 40 years later that cited Holmes, in which sailors murdered and ate the weakest member of their lifeboat crew, on the grounds that they were starving and he was likely to die anyway. note 
  • Lawrence Oates went out into a blizzard after supplies for the ill-fated Scott Antarctic Expedition ran low, in an ultimately futile attempt to save his companions.
  • The commander of a Cold War-era underground base in North Bay, Ontario would have been forced to invoke this had a nuclear bomb detonated near the base and forced it to be sealed. To prevent radiological contamination, the entire base's air supply would be sealed. Even the air-supply for the emergency generators! They had a choice: keep the generators running so that the base's air defense computers kept running, and kill everyone within hours, or keep them off, survive for weeks, but weaken the defenses of a continent? Luckily, this never happened.
  • In a mass casualty incident where there are insufficient resources available for rescue, this becomes an aspect of triage. Standard triage tags for injured people have four colours: green for minor injuries that can be safely ignored by first responders, yellow for a non life-threatening injury (such as a broken arm) that can have treatment delayed until resources are available, red for someone who needs immediate attention (such as someone going into shock or having trouble breathing), and black. A black tag on someone who isn't dead yet means they're not to be given any medical treatment except pain medication (and potentially not even that, depending on resources) until everyone else is dealt with because their injuries are almost certainly fatal with the resources available and efforts spent on them would end up unavailable to people who have a higher probability of living.
  • The equivalent of the human body is in cases of fasting and severe starvation, once the fat reserves and glycogen stores in the liver have been used up, to basically break down proteins (read: muscles and cells) to keep essential organs such as the brain working for as long as possible.


Video Example(s):


I Robot- Save the Girl

Det. Spooner explains why he doesn't trust robots: they lack the emotions to understand to always save the girl despite (materialist) logic.

How well does it match the trope?

4.77 (13 votes)

Example of:

Main / AlwaysSaveTheGirl

Media sources: