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Curious Qualms of Conscience

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Varrick: Usually I look at a project like this and all I think is "WOW! I can make a ton of money off this!" But recently I've been having these... strange feelings. Inside. It's like I'm... concerned with others. And there's this nagging voice in my head. Constantly. Telling me what's right from wrong!
Zhu Li: I believe that voice is your conscience, sir?

You are doing your duty — you know it, you have been instructed from childhood in how to behave properly. Or perhaps you are just listening to something that was done. Properly.

So why do you feel like it was Dirty Business? It is inexplicable, even stunning and shocking, to feel this way about your duty.

The commonest cause is that the evil being done is to someone outside the purported scope of Moral Myopia. Although association with such people can trigger it, it is not required. Others may arise when a character raised to never give a sucker an even break feels guilty about cheating, or other times when cunning appears despicable.

Frequently the character can articulate all sorts of reasons why he should not feel this way and none at all why he should, his conflict becoming manifest in his mute failure to act in a way that defy the qualms. More exaggerated cases may believe Bad Is Good and Good Is Bad, which makes it even more confusing to question one's moral stance.

Can lead to a Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right! or a curious Heel Realization where the character thinks he is becoming a Heel, but the audience thinks he is repudiating it. May overlap with To Be Lawful or Good, when the moral dilemma is more complex. Sometimes, however, the character overrides the qualms.


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    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • In Astro City:
    • An alien spy scouting out Earth for invasion follows Crackerjack, a competent hero but also a Glory Hound, for a night, and wrestles with the notion of whether his virtues or his flaws (as representative of Earth) are greater, and whether he should transmit his information. His thoughts are interrupted by overhearing Gossipy Hens, whom he despises, and he sends it.
    • A mob member who has lived his entire life by the rule that you take any open door for advancement that you can obtains an alien artifact. He wrestles with the knowledge that it's clearly an open door. Finally, he asks his wife what more she wants out of life, and she tells him that she has more than she had ever dreamed of, and only wants him to be happy herself. He assures her that he also only needs her to be happy to be happy himself, and puts aside the question.
    • In "Pastoral," Cammie has written out an email detailing how she knows a superhero's Secret Identity and will reveal it, and collect the reward because he's a fugitive from justice. She is told she can connect to the internet — and stares at the screen and decides to go out to the barn to play with the kittens instead. There she learns that the hero is her cousin's boyfriend, and realizes that all the Close-Knit Community is acting as a Secret-Keeper — and decides to do the same.
  • Judge Dredd: A long time problem for Judge Dredd, as he's not always able to ignore that a strict interpretation of the law sometimes leads to injustice for individuals, even though it might be best for the society as a whole. After the "Democracy" arc his doubts about the "Big Lie" (that the Judges supposedly know what's best for the people) become so bad that he resigns and goes to live in the Cursed Earth for the better part of a year.
  • In Invincible, Nolan feels increasingly conflicted about his mission to conquer worlds when starting a family on Earth forces him to see non-Viltrumites as people for the first time in his life.
  • In Kurt Busiek's A Wizard's Tale, Rumplewhisker fights long and hard against doing the right thing because he's an Evil Wizard.

    Fan Works 

  • In the sequel to Child of the Storm, first Gambit (offscreen, prior to the story), and at his instigation as part of Defusing the Tyke-Bomb, Maddie Pryor a.k.a. Rachel Grey, Jean's stolen at birth twin sister, undergo this. The former because he realised that the latter was as much a victim of her circumstances as he was when he was trying to manipulate her to get out of trouble, if not more, the latter after Gambit encouraged her to be her own person and Harry trusted in the good nature she didn't even know she had. She stands up for and protects him after that, while being very confused as to why she's doing it, before pulling a proper Heel–Face Turn.

    Films — Animated 
  • In The Boxtrolls, the villain's henchmen Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles continually have misgivings that their job seems an awful lot like they're the Bad Guys, and have long philosophical debates on whether this is in fact the case.

  • In Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess, Wooster insinuates to Agatha that Gil's found another girl. After, he reflects: anything that separates the Wulfenbachs and the Heterodyne heir is to the good of England, so why does he feel like a cad?
  • Rana Sanga and Damorada in Belisarius Series. Sanga was raised in a different culture; his conflict came from the fact that he had given his word to the rulers that were conducting the atrocities he deplored rather then being brought up to approve of them.
  • In Jeramey Kraatz's The Cloak Society, Alex is utterly unable to explain why he saved Kirbie's life, but still feels it was the right thing to do.
  • In Darkness at Noon, one of the Grand Inquisitor Scenes has Ivanov berating Rubashov for being weak enough to suffer pangs of conscience, which he charges have caused the downfall of every revolution.
  • In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle, a character reorders his life according to Epicurus, in order to make it actually happy by thinking about what to do, instead of hedonstically following his first impulse regardless of what misery it will bring. Then he impulsively warns someone that he's in danger, and so brings himself into the gulag. In his cell, he concludes that in spite of not being conducive to his happiness, it was nevertheless the right thing to do.
  • Harry Potter:
  • Huckleberry Finn thinks it his duty to turn Jim in, because it is wrong to deprive the widow of her property. Although unable to formulate the notion that it is wrong to betray Jim, he nevertheless decides not to do it, even if he goes to Hell for it.
  • In Poul Anderson's A World Called Maanerek, Korul Waren hears that, when discipline problems mounted too high, the ship takes over part of a planet and hands over the locals to the men for rape and Cold-Blooded Torture. He feels afraid that the planet he had been left on was thus chosen, and even when he hears it was done before, he doesn't like it — even though he knows that such things are necessary for the Hegemony to extend itself to take in more people, and so altruistic. He finally concludes he's gone insane and so acts insanely, rescuing a woman prisoner and then blowing up the ship after they escape.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Subverted in the Blackadder II episode "Head," where Edmund has been appointed Lord High Executioner and is reviewing the schedule of upcoming executions.
    Edmund: Admiral Lord Ethingham and Sir Francis Drake on Monday. snip Buckingham and Ponsonby on Friday. Oh wait a minute. Farrow on Wednesday. Who's Farrow when he's not having his head cut off?
    Percy: Ah, James Farrow, pleasant bloke from Dorchester.
    Edmund: Don't know him, never will either. Yes, and he goes on Wednesdsay?
    Percy: Hmm.
    Edmund: It's not right though, is it?
    Percy: Well no! I mean now you come to mention it, my Lord, there was absolutely no evidence against young Farrow at all! It was an outrageous travesty of justice!
    Edmund: No, it's not right that he should be on Wednesday when we could stick him in on Monday and have half the week off.
    Percy: Oh I see. Yes, that's right.
  • There was an episode of Diagnosis: Murder where the Killer of the Week was a Sympathetic Murderer whose friend willingly framed himself for her crime, rather than see her arrested. After exposing the truth to the police, Mark Sloan muses "Why do I feel so bad?", to which his cop son replies, "What's right isn't always what's easy."
  • A sketch on That Mitchell and Webb Look features two Nazi soldiers who begin to grow concerned that they are in fact the Bad Guys— drawing this conclusion from the fact that all their uniforms are decorated with skulls.
    Erich: Have you noticed that our caps actually have little pictures of skulls on them?
    Hans: I don't... er-
    Erich: Hans... are we the baddies?

  • Invoked in the song "Habaes Corpses (Draconian Love)" by rapper El-P. The song is a conversation between two executioners on a futuristic "prison ship" in a bleak future. The narrator/protagonist is an executioner who's fallen in love with one of the prisoners he's scheduled to kill. At one point, he turns to a friend and asks:
    El-P: Does this job ever bother you, darkly creep up in your conscience too?
    Cage: Nope. In fact, I'm so enamored with this standard that being handed a command to [shoot], it's almost romantic. The lead giveth, I'd take it if I didn't understand it.
    El-P: I'm saying, during the tenure of your gig, have you ever herded a [prisoner], who despite the traitorous label, makes you nervous as a kid? Who maybe beyond a date with the lead, there's something else meant for her, a prisoner with the beauty of 247290-Z.

  • In Dawn of a New Age: Oldport Blues, Jacob tries to run away from the bombs set in the school and avoid any trouble, as has been drilled into him by his mother. But Lenore's earnestness in trying to defuse the bombs and save everyone makes him feel an alien sense of guilt, and eventually convinces him to help her.

    Video Games 
  • Fallout: New Vegas:
    • If Dean Domino survives the game, his epilogue has him learn the fates of Fredrick Sinclair and Vera Keyes, the two friends he betrayed and who, it turns out, died in part because of his actions. As he discovers this, he finds himself suddenly feeling very sad... but he can’t understand why. So he shrugs off the feeling and leaves to explore the Mojave.
    • In the Old World Blues DLC, confronting Dr Borous with the food bowl belonging to his dog Gabe - arguably the only creature who loved him unconditionally - will cause him to feel uncomfortable as he thinks about the horrible experiments he subjected his pet to. If you actually spell out what he's feeling, he'll intentionally suppress those thoughts and go on with his unethical ways, but if you refrain from doing so and let him stew in the unfamiliar feelings for a while, he'll adopt a a more nurturing outlook, both in regards to his experiments and to you.

    Visual Novels 
  • In the first Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney game, Edgeworth laments the "unnecessary feelings" he's been saddled with by Phoenix defeating him in court and sending the Obviously Evil murderer that Edgeworth had been enabling to prison. Although Edgeworth tells Phoenix he never wants to see him again, it's not long before he starts prioritizing justice over personal glory.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender:
    • In "Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, Part 2)", the monks who served the Fire Temple originally worked on the order to serve the Avatar, but nearly all of them eventually pledged their loyalty to Fire Lord Ozai. Emphasis on "nearly", because Shyu, alone among them, opts to assist the Gaang out of a desire to stick to tradition. Zhao still decides to punish the monks in their entirety on the grounds of guilt by association.
    • Zuko's gradual Heel–Face Turn during the third season is brought about by a Double Subversion of this trope. While his travels during the second volume led to him starting to question if he was really on the right side, and while he was considering standing down during the events of "The Crossroads Of Destiny", Azula is able to sway him to taking her side by convincing him that doing so will restore his honor in the eyes of the Fire Nation. Despite Azula congratulating him during the aftermath, he still wonders if he made the right choice, and his doubts continue to plague him until he finally decides to stand up to his father Ozai in "The Day of Black Sun (Part 2)". This is partly due to his retaining a sense of honor that the Fire Lord is lacking, and partly because he was welcomed back to his home nation due to his role in Aang's apparent death — which he's realized would make him a convenient scapegoat should it be discovered that the Avatar survived after all.
    • From the sequel series, Vaarick is a opportunistic profiteer who is willing to betray his friends in order to make a quick buck. However, when he accidentally creates a Fantastic Nuke in Season 4, he immediately shuts down his spirit vines project, citing the above quote. While his uber-controlling supervisor, Kuvira, is still able to strong-arm him into compliance initially, their working relationship begins to gradually deteriorate from that point forward until she eventually attempts to kill him outright due to no longer having a use for him, upon which he finally decides he's had it up to here with her nonsense and turns against her.
  • Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law covers this in "Droopy Botox". When Birdman manages to defend his client during a medical malpractice suit and leaves Droopy without compensation, he comes to this quandary. It becomes worse as he is promoted to vice president in his agency and gets loads of money over someone else's misery because of his job. He spends a bit of time trying to apologize for this until he decides to just give Droopy his money.