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Dirty Business

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"Being a spy, you have to get comfortable with the idea of people doing bad things for good reasons; doing good things for bad reasons. You do the best you can."
Michael Westen, Burn Notice

Sometimes, you do what needs doing, but that doesn't mean you have to like it.

The Hero does something wrong, or ambiguous, or involving some sacrifice. They feel tainted by it, even if they had no choice in the matter. This is one way to humanize them and show that they are not just cold and heartless, thus making them more palatable to viewers. Sometimes the display of remorse might even avert a crossing of the Moral Event Horizon.

There is no need for them to resolve to act otherwise, or wish that they had acted otherwise, to bring this trope into play; merely wishing that it had not been necessary is enough. They can wish that they were not praised as much for it, in the Sub-Trope Be All My Sins Remembered.

They can even think that it is Dirty Business while they decide to do it, feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place. Often due to Conflicting Loyalty, they would feel the same way about either choice. When the hero does wish they had not done it, see My God, What Have I Done? and Tears of Remorse.

The better sort of Knight Templar or Well-Intentioned Extremist may also feel it, though generally overlapping with a willful blindness to the fact that it did not, in fact, have to be done. A somewhat nastier version may claim that their suffering, having to do these things, is the important thing, and completely ignore their victims' sufferings.

How wrong the act is depends on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, and the character. Those with Incorruptible Pure Pureness may feel it for even ambiguous acts, while an Anti-Hero or Anti-Villain may reserve it for serious wrongdoing. Sometimes a character suffers Curious Qualms of Conscience when they can't figure out why they think that act was Dirty Business.

May manifest as Past Experience Nightmare, Beard of Sorrow, Drowning My Sorrows and the like, but does not need to be severe enough to reach that level. In some cases, may result in them becoming The Atoner.

See also Shoot the Dog, which often provokes this in the better characters — and shows that the worse characters are worse by their lack of this.

Trope also blends well with Realpolitik and even Treachery Cover Up.

Has nothing to do with "doing one's business", or with actually dirty businesses, be that the TV show or any such jobs themselves.

Reminder: This is not just about doing morally ambiguous things! The character must also show remorse for it. If there is no mention of showing remorse for the deed, please consider another, more appropriate trope like Shoot the Dog.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Cross Marian of D.Gray-Man who can convert Akuma — to assist the Exorcists, or help with a mission, but programs them to self-destruct should they attempt to kill anyone, thus destroying their souls forever. Decides to sacrifice a comrade to complete a task, and raises an orphan boy with ulterior motives. However, he loves said boy and asks himself later "Do you always have to sacrifice something to protect something else?" He apparently has done that a lot—enough to question it. But he doesn't enjoy it. The author says he has hardships, got saddled with a lot of trouble in the war, and hides bitter things. The character seems to be a depressed fellow that deals with his sorrows by drinking, smoking, and enjoying the sex and company of women. But don't misunderstand. He actually appreciates and respects his women, thus ruling him out as The Casanova. Along with Chivalrous Pervert, he fits the Ethical Slut trope as well. One of his dislikes being "Dirty bastards."
  • Gekkei in The Twelve Kingdoms has this attitude toward killing the King, Queen, and Kirin of Hou to end the aforementioned monarch's execution-happy regime, the latter two of which he kills right in front of the horrified Princess Shoukei. He feels so guilty about it that despite the rest of the court begging him to take over as an interim king until a new ruler is chosen, he refuses time and again, citing the blood on his hands. He finally comes to terms with it and steps up to the plate near the end of the series, in order to have the authority to plead with the Queen of Kyou for leniency in regards to the now-reformed Shoukei.
  • Naruto: Itachi Uchiha. By the age of 13, the child prodigy had chosen to become a double agent for Konohagakure's leaders, spying on his own parents and his clan to prevent them from mounting a coup. Then he had to massacre his entire clan, down to the last person (although he defied the order by sparing his kid brother) and afterwards flee the village as a wanted S-rank missing nin, just to cover up the involvement of the Village Elders in this. The irony? Itachi shed so much blood and took so many burdens onto his shoulders because he wanted to spare the world from a bloody war.
  • Negima! Magister Negi Magi has Negi stressing out over whether helping to protect The Masquerade was the right thing to do. Everyone else tells him that what's done is done and he should stop worrying about it. Then it happens again during the magic world arc when it turns out that the Big Bad actually has a pretty good reason for what he's doing. One of the main themes of Negima is that you can't always be sure if you're doing the right thing and sometimes you just have to push forward anyway.
  • Knight Hunters: Dirty Business is essentially the raison d'etre for Weiss, a team of assassins who kill criminals that escape the justice of the law. All of the members of Weiss consider themselves unforgivable sinners, but do what they do in order to protect innocents.
  • Code Geass: Lelouch makes no bones about many of the extremes he goes to in his fight against Britannia.
  • In Saint Beast, this is how Zeus regards killing The Old Gods.
  • In Day Break Illusion the members of Sephiro Fiore have to kill those that are possessed by Daemonia. They don't like this, but eventually come to terms with it.
  • In the Tartaros arc of Fairy Tail, Juvia is forced to destroy Keyes, a Necromancer demon remotely controlling a dead man to detonate an Anti-Magic bomb and resurrect Zeref's ultimate demon. The downside is that Keyes was also controlling Silver, Gray's undead father who personally requested her to do so, and she is left feeling torn up about it for quite some time, believing she has lost the right to love Gray. However, Gray forgives her in the end.

    Comic Books 
  • Watchmen: What Ozymandias does at the end. He claims that he makes himself feel the suffering of every victim, as if it lessens the evil of what he has done. His You Have Outlived Your Usefulness moment is played in much the same way. The necessity of tying up loose ends is debatable. Though it does raise a few questions when he lets the masked heroes who confronted him live instead
  • In Kingdom Come, it eventually turns out that Magog himself lives and breathes this trope (as is fitting as he is a deconstruction of the '90s Anti-Hero). He eventually has a mental breakdown during his reunion with Superman, haunted by the fact that the destruction of Kansas is his fault and that his adoring public and Superman himself just stood aside and let him slide that far.
  • This trope is played several times with the Senate Guard Sagoro Autem. He shoots his estranged brother to prevent him from murdering a corrupt Senator, but deeply regrets the necessity of doing so. In a strange inversion, he holds his partner and friend at gunpoint to prevent him from arresting Sagoro's son, who was an unintentional part of the assassination scheme, telling his partner that he had already alienated his wife and killed his brother for his duty, and he wasn't going to let it take his son, too.
  • Doctor Strange had a story arc in which he had to learn dark magic in order to defeat foes which he had inadvertently loosed while saving his friends' lives. The result was a crash-course in dog marksmanship, with Strange hating himself all the while, ending in his own self-sacrifice. (He got better).
  • The Transformers (IDW):
    • This is a common pattern among those Wreckers who don't die, snap or both. In particular, Requiem of the Wreckers ends with Springer, the best leader they ever had, instructing both the few remaining Wreckers and some of their prospective recruits to destroy the squad's legacy and make it so that the horrible things they did never have to be done again.
    • According to Mesothulas, Prowl has a cycle of this followed by it ending up as an Ignored Epiphany. He compromises his morals for the greater good, crosses a line, feels bad about it, resolves to be a better person, hits some setback and falls back into his old ways. For example, while working with the spoilered character, Prowl arranged to bomb a neutral city as a False Flag Operation that earned the Autobots a thousand new recruits, was wracked by guilt, and tried to better himself...and then got Impactor to attempt to kill Mesothulas to keep the Mad Scientist from causing problems.

    Fan Works 
  • In The Walking Dead fanfic Better Angels, Shane copes with murdering Rick by convincing himself that the group wouldn't last if he continued leading them. He feels justified when the group stumbles upon The Prison, but it gets worse from there...
  • The Brane of Extraordinary Women story Cross Purposes relates how Rupert Giles in the Stargate universe, as agent 007, once killed a team of assassins at Willow's parent-teacher interview night, then seduced Willow's mother to persuade her to keep quiet about what she saw. He deeply regrets doing it, especially after learning that it broke apart Willow's family, but since his alternative option was to kill her, he still feels that he had no choice.
  • In Supergirl story Hellsister Trilogy, Legionnaire Dev-Em reveals that in the past he had to turn a partner over to the enemy to carry a mission forward. He didn't like it, he still has nightmares about it... but his actions saved lifes.
    Dev-Em: It was an inforunning operation out of a Dark Circle world. My contact was a man in deep cover. Their cointelpro caught up to us just after an information drop. We had made arrangements on what to do if such a thing happened. I exposed him as a traitor. My cover held. He was taken away, tortured, and killed. I got the package through. Later, I saw to it that his torturers got theirs. No, I didn't do it personally... but I made sure it was done. That's how it is in my world. Not pretty, but we get the job done.
    Kara Zor-El: ...
    Dev: No, don't think I enjoyed it. Rolg's face still comes to me in a particularly juicy nightmare every now and then. But he has to wait his time in line. And you know what he tells me? He tells me about the people of that world who were liberated, in time, with the information I got through. He tells me that I did the right thing.
  • HERZ: Misato runs a peace-making, peace-keeping organization devoted to stop the proliferation of Humongous Mecha technology. It is not a nice job and Misato has got to do or order to do many shady, questionable things to protect her family and humankind: blackmail, extortion, sabotage… She regrets all of it and thinks there is too much blood on her hands but she had no other option.
    Misato: I'm the fool. And I've become a monster.
    Kaji: You made hard choices. And you had your responsibilities.
    Misato: So much blood, Kaji. I have so much blood on my hands.
    Kaji: But you knew had to, [...] You had a reason.
  • Xendra changes the Cruciamentum from "way to kill off Slayers before they can become independent" to "only way to make Slayers immune to the poison we inject them with so no one else can use it against them". Even doing it when they turn eighteen is because it's viewed as too horrible for a new Slayer so the Council waits until they've proven themselves a capable fighter by having a couple years under their belt.
  • Recoil:
    • Taylor knows that she couldn't give too much advance warning about a Behemoth attack if she wanted to keep her cover. But it eats at her that doing so led to more people dying that she might have saved.
    • Taylor shoots a four year-old child to death because he's Valefor and was using his power to kill Kinsey.
    • Taylor triggers protests which escalate to deadly riots in Los Angeles in order to keep Alexandria from attending a meeting in person. Had she been present, Alexandria would have noticed Taylor was gaslighting Eidolon in order to convince him to commit suicide by Behemoth, which neutralized the Endbringers.
  • In The Dear Sweetie Belle Continuity: "Dear Dinky Hooves", Time Turner and Nevermore reluctantly killed Rarity's parents as one step in saving the timeline from annihilation.
  • Wearing Robert's Crown: Drakebert has to deal with the fact he executed a twelve year old for murder. And earlier with Tywin having had Rhaegar's family killed.
    Drakebert: It's no secret that two of your knights slew Princess Elia and you know how hot-headed the Dornish can be.
    Tywin: It needed to be done.
    Drakebert: The children, yes. And I doubt she'd have stood by for it. But dammit, man! But don't brag about it! Dark deeds are done in the dark where no one can see them.
  • In A Prize for Three Empires, Carol Danvers kills a Shi'ar Guardsman during the Shi'ar civil war. When she is interrogated by other Guardsmen, Carol states she didn't enjoy killing him, but they were fighting in opposite sides during a war.
    Titan: How did it feel when you killed Zenith? Our brother Guardsman?
    Carol: Well, it wasn't something I enjoyed. If there was a different way to go back and do it, I would. But we were in battle. It's the age-old soldier's question. 'Who's it gonna be, me or him?' I didn't have anything against him. But I imagine every one of you knows about war.
  • A Diplomatic Visit: In the sequel Diplomat at Large, the changelings feel this way about Sealing Chrysalis. She was the first Queen, and there are many who are still in awe of her… even those who despise what she did will mourn when she's dealt with. Despite this, they understand that her crimes leave them no choice but to strip her of her powers and rank.
  • The Weaver Option: The Imperium ends up killing billions of innocent slaves during the raid on Commorragh either as collateral damage or in targeted attacks. Taylor and many of her commanders don't like this but they simply lack the resources and time to free and evacuate all of them. The final battle starts with the Imperium nuking the last surviving slaves they couldn't evacuate so they won't fall prey to daemons.

  • The Battle of Algiers: This is largely how Colonel Mathieu views his job of putting down the Algerian insurgency. "Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer "yes," then you must accept all the necessary consequences."
  • In Serenity, the Operative admits that what he does is evil, and that he is a monster for doing it. When he kills a man at the beginning of the movie, it's quite evident from his face that he is sorrowful and tells the man as he dies that his is a good death, and that he did fine works for the betterment of all mankind.
  • In Wreck-It Ralph, when Ralph wrecks Vanellope's car, he believes it necessary to save her life, but he doesn't like doing it. Especially since he knows it looks like he was just using her to get his medal, and he turned on her when King Candy gave it to him.
  • In Yamato, Admiral Ito is clearly unhappy about Ten-Go and the fact that the fleet will have no air cover, which makes it painfully obvious to him that he will be sending his men into a grinder, but he can't refuse an order from the emperor.
  • Rogue One introduces a darker side of the Rebel Alliance than in other Star Wars movies, thus evoking this trope: that sometimes people need to do more morally dubious acts (the male lead, Cassian, kills a man for being too slow in his first scene) so that the galaxy can be free.
  • Averted in the trailer for Avengers: Infinity War, but played straight in the film itself: Thanos truly believes that what he is doing is the only way to keep life in the universe from consuming itself, even if it requires losing five out of his six children (and personally killing his favorite, Gamora), gaining knowledge of every soul in the universe, potentially destroying the gauntlet and all six stones and receiving a possibly fatal wound (or two, depending on the effect the snap had on him) to do so.
    • The trailer, on the other hand, contains the line "One does not consider fun when balancing the universe, but this does put a smile on my face," implying that Thanos was unexpectedly deriving joy from his actions instead of anguish.
    • Fans Theories were quick to point out that Thanos' actions are in direct contrast to Captain America's refusal to "Trade in Lives" is probably a major part of the the theme of the duology of movies.
  • In Wonder Woman (2017) Diana is hesitant to work with Steve's friends, describing them as a liar, a murderer, and a smuggler. Steve responds by pointing out that his work as a spy made him all three.

  • Animorphs:
    • The titular Child Soldiers start out with ideals and principles like not morphing sapient beings without their permission, and not killing defenseless enemies. They break both of those rules multiple times by the end of the war, most notably when Jake orders Ax to drain the Pool Ship, ejecting 17,000 helpless Yeerks into space. For the record, he feels terrible about it (as well as sending Rachel on a suicide mission to kill his own brother), and the Animorphs spend time in almost every book debating the morality of their actions.
    • Alloran wasn't the only one to create the Quantum Virus that decimated the Hork-Bajir, but he was the one who ordered its creation and was blamed for it. He comes to regret his decision after 25 or so years as Visser Three's host.note 
  • In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter has many problems with the concept of Greater Good and what must be done (and what he must do) for it, especially Dumbledore's take on the matter. That said, he doesn't really have any problems using two Unforgivable Curses on Death Eaters. He does, however, stop short of using the third.
  • Lord Peter Wimsey:
    • In Gaudy Night, Lord Peter has Harriet help him draw out information from the senior university members. She tells him that she feels like Judas, he tells her it's part of the job, and she soldiers on.
    • In The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter explicitly calls it dirty but does recommend putting two suspect in a room together with a microphone.
  • Nowhere Stars: Liadain feels this way about using her Life Drinker powers on people; she's a terminally ill Dark Magical Girl who will die in less than a year if she doesn't, and until she finds a more permanent cure, it's the only way to fend off her symptoms. She hates doing it, especially since it leaves them feeling milder, non-lethal versions of her own symptoms, and tries to do as little harm as she possible can while justifying that they'll at least recover in a few weeks, while she very much won't.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • The Stark family have a tradition dating back to the days in which they were the Kings in the North; the head of the family, either the King or the incumbent Lord Stark, personally carries out every execution. Lord Eddard Stark executes a deserter from the Night's Watch at the beginning of book one. He explains why to one of his young sons afterwards.
      "The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man's life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die."
    • Jorah Mormont is a brave, reasonable, and good-hearted knight, who once sold some poachers into slavery so he could provide for his wife's luxurious lifestyle. He also acts as a spy for the Baratheons to keep an eye on Daenerys Targaryen, but later switches loyalties to her.
  • Vorkosigan Saga:
    • In The Vor Game, Miles Vorkosigan tells people — even his friends — so many lies and half-truths that he feels deeply relieved when he can tell Tung that he's trying to rescue Gregor, because that's a whole truth.
    • In Barrayar when Drou drops into a bit of a funk after she kills a man in her first real combat experience, Cordelia tells her to treasure her guilt, because society needs people who are capable of doing the necessary evil, without becoming evil themselves.
  • Warhammer 40,000 Expanded Universe:
    • Ciaphas Cain:
      • In For the Emperor, Cain and the soldiers under him must wipe out a squad of PDF because any survivor could get out the word that they were escorting the Tau ambassadors. Although the soldiers had fired on them, they were clearly not evilly motivated and they were obviously young. Cain finds himself disgusted by it, and has difficulty working out what to say to his troopers. He finally tells the sergeant to tell them that he appreciated what they did. The sergeant says he will, with obvious sympathy, and Cain realizes it was the right thing. In the same novel, Cain shoots two of his own people dead in cold blood just as it seems the conflict is over. They had been infected by Genestealers unknowingly.
      • In Caves of Ice, Cain must order the destruction of a fallen guardsman's body - to carry it would slow them down too much, there's no time or tools to bury it, and leaving it where it lay would reveal their presence to the enemy. He notes no small amount of dismay on his part.
      • In the short story "Sector 13", Cain discovers a genestealer cult. At the end of the story, amid general celebration, he's trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid thinking about all the Imperial subjects and guardsmen who're being executed because, despite being loyal, they are infected and there's no way to save them.
    • Gaunt's Ghosts:
      • In Traitor General, when a resistance member freaks out, Gaunt knocks him unconscious and carries him to safety. Landerson, another member, is surprised that being a commissar, he didn't kill him, and Gaunt talks of his duty to protect mankind, even the weak and frightened — and feels a distaste for it. The truth was, he could not have left the body behind, and he might as well bring him alive, but he was saying that to manipulate Landerson.
      • In Blood Pact, Gaunt thinks that he's done a lot of dubious things in his day, but he particularly dislikes having let the prisoner "bleed out" the Blood Magic of the pursuing witch — out of not only himself but also Wes Maggs.
    • In the Iron Warriors novel Storm of Iron, Major Tedeski must leave men on walls that are being bombarded, for fear of an escalade.
      There was every chance he was consigning these men to die, and the guilt of their deaths tasted like ashes in his mouth.
    • In the Horus Heresy novel Horus Rising, Loken feels guilty about stripping away the consolations of their religions from the conquered, who suffer from their conquest. Horus consoles him with the hope that it will lead to more happiness in the long run. Hoo boy...
    • In the Blood Angels novel Deus Sanguinius, Solus confesses that firing on the Amareo and their battle brothers had bothered him. Rafen, finding himself needing to fight and kill his battle-brothers, though for different reasons from Solus, doesn't enjoy it either.
    • In James Swallow's novel Faith & Fire, Verity reflects that Vaun has killed and so have she and Miriya. Miriya points out how they feel it, that they have killed.
    • In the beginning of Rynn's World, a scout disobeys a direct order and as a result many space marines die. The punishment for this crime is extreme and the Chapter Master hates having to order it but he has to enforce obedience and discipline. What makes it worse is that he freely admits that had the scout succeeded in the forbidden action, he would have ended a war and would have been hailed as a hero of the Chapter and his offense quietly forgiven. Later in the book, the Crimson Fists Space Marine Chapter has so many of its members killed during an ork invasion that its leaders issue an order that no space marine is to risk his life to save a civilian since preserving the existence of the Chapter is now the main priority. This does not sit well with the space marines since their duty is to protect imperial citizens. In fact, it is the leaders who issued the order who are first to disobey it and risk themselves to save refugees.
    • In the Night Lords novel Lord of the Night, Sahaal is found by religious fanatics devoted to the Emperor. He's a traitor Space Marine, but they take him for an Imperial one, and he realizes he can use them, if — he finds choking out "Ave Imperator" very difficult in indeed.
    • Ultramarines:
      • In Dead Sky Black Sun, when a renegade Space Marine persuades Uriel to leave behind some hideously tortured prisoners to their death, Uriel knows that a rescue would be pointless, and their death a mercy, but still feels guilty about leaving them to it.
      • Later, when Leonid persuades Uriel that he must go on without them, as they are dying anyway, Uriel agrees but still feels like it is betrayal. (Uriel got stuck between a rock and a hard place several times in this novel.)
  • Discworld:
    • Possibly with old "Stoneface" Vimes, the only one willing to execute a corrupt, depraved king; Ankh-Morpork's last. He got lynched for doing it.
    • In Carpe Jugulum, it's revealed that Granny Weatherwax feels this way about nearly every decision she's made. But she has to keep making them, so no-one else has to.
    • This is part of the role that Professor Hix of Unseen University plays as the school's resident expert of dark magic; because he is mandated to be moderately evil, he can do things that are ethically dubious but practically necessary, such as performing a possibly dangerous Tap on the Head to free someone from a cursed object's influence, or show up at unlicensed dark wizards' lairs to fireball them to death.
  • Over the last nine years, Emiya Kiritsugu of Fate/Zero has really come to feel that his ideal is a very unpleasant want to uphold. Example: He sets fire to a building to clear some innocent people out before destroying the foundation to kill his enemy near the top. Right after doing so he realizes that he must have gotten soft because normally he would just blow up the building immediately with everyone inside. After nine years of living as a family with his wife and daughter, he's no longer nearly so nonchalant and it's weakened him considerably.
  • In Margaret Ball's Disappearing Act, Maris realizes that she is Becoming the Mask when she thinks that synthesizing a pleasant but addictive substance would be a bad thing to do. (And then finds herself pondering questions about whether depriving truly wretched people of their drugs will only make their lives worse.)
  • In The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Frodo despises it even as he lures Gollum into the hands of Faramir's men.
  • In The Dresden Files, Harry has to do this several times.
    • In Fool Moon, Harry feels bad about not telling Kim, his apprentice and friend, what the three circles of binding do. Still, he comforts himself with the idea that she shouldn't be messing with things like that, and that by not telling her about it he was keeping her out of trouble. Things only get worse when he realizes that because he withheld this information, Kim dies at the hands of a werewolf she was trying to bind with the circles. Ouch.
    • In Grave Peril, killing the ghost of Kravos, even though he knew it was not a real person.
    • In Death Masks, Harry detests having to flee Nicodemus, leaving Shiro his prisoner.
    • In Turn Coat, many regard Morgan as an acceptable sacrifice. After Listens-To-The-Wind insists that Harry and Molly will not be scapegoated as well, Mai says The Merlin will not be pleased; Listen-To-The-Wind says no one should be pleased with the results of this.
    • In Changes, Harry... does things. Uses nearly all his contacts, his powers, his options waiting. He calls in his friends, he calls in his friendly enemies, and he's willing to cross the line to save his daughter. He swallows his pride, seeks help from Ivy, Marcone, Uriel even. When not enough, he takes the mantle of Winter Knight, and kills Lloyd State. By the end of it, he even kills Susan to save their daughter. Oh, and lets not forget committing genocide on an entire vampire species. Granted, they were pretty much all monsters (except all those half-bloods that were too old to survive having the other half killed) but it was still the willful murder of hundreds of thousands. Also, though he doesn't actually do it, Harry admits that if Mab hadn't made him the Winter Knight, he would have either called on Nicodemus for help in summoning Lasciel's coin or used Kemmler's Darkhallow, which involves killing a lot of people.
  • In Endless Blue, Mikhail stops an Attempted Rape by shooting the would-be rapist. He knows that the Red also killed his foster-brother Turk, but he is still horrified that he shot a member of his crew.
  • In the Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Outbound Flight, this is how Commander Thrawn feels about the deaths of the fifty thousand civilian passengers of the titular ship. (Of course, in his later-set appearances, he's much more comfortable with acts of villainy; this is almost his Start of Darkness.) Kinman Doriana isn't exactly happy about it, either, though it's unclear whether he actually cares about the deaths or he simply ends up sympathizing with Thrawn. Likely the latter, since he'd been intending to have everyone on Outbound Flight killed all along, but he says, "I'm content. I wouldn't say I'm happy."
    Thrawn: No warrior ever has the full depth of control that he would like. ... But I wish here that it might have been otherwise.
  • In the Dale Brown novel Shadow Command, American soldiers attack a Dreamland facility and express regret that the EMP device used to disable a CID unit will also fry the operator.
  • The Golden Oecumene: In The Phoenix Exultant, Phaethon thinks that turning in Ironjay to get control of his shop is petty and mean — but he can't afford to let Ironjay take advantage of his nature.
  • Inheritance Cycle: This often happens to Eragon and Roran. In one chapter of the third book, Eragon discusses his qualms over killing enemy soldiers with Arya, and she shares her own experience of coming to terms with her own actions.
  • "For King and Country" in the Those Who Hunt the Night sequel Blood Maidens; Asher really hates working for the government.
  • In Rick Cook's Limbo System, Toyodo is convinced that they live in a computer simulation and will just get another run if they die. The captain knows this and, feeling ashamed, still asks him to volunteer for a hazardous mission.
  • In Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess, Wooster insinutes to Agatha that Gil's found another girl. After, he reflects that anything that separates the Wulfenbachs and the Heterodyne heir is to the good of England. So why does he feel like a cad?
  • In Caliphate, Hamilton despises having to take on the role of a child slave trader as part of his mission for the CIA's successor agency, but goes through with it anyway in spite of his detestation of the institution of child slavery, due to the seriousness of the situation that caused the mission in the first place.
  • In the Count to the Eschaton novel Count to a Trillion, Menelaus finds driving off blighters this, even though he knows they are a disease-bearing danger. Later, he discovers that the spaceship's crew knew that mining the star would alert aliens to humanity's existence, and they would then come to enslave.
  • Jack Ryan:
    • In Debt of Honor, the US does some ambiguous things to even the odds against the Japanese, like using a gadget to blind the pilots of two AWACS planes so they crash on landing, but several of the POV characters doing so don't enjoy it.
    • In Rainbow Six, Clark and Ding may be hardened special forces men no stranger to the ambiguous, but they find the Curb-Stomp Battle against the ecos so one-sided it feels like murder. Even if the ecos were planning on exterminating mankind.
  • In Freckles, Black Jack is taken in by Angel's Obfuscating Stupidity and flirtation, and says, "When a man's got a chance of catching a fine girl like that, he ought not be mixed up in any dirty business. I wish to God I was out of this!"
  • The Lost Fleet: In Invincible, Geary has to read a letter between two Star-Crossed Lovers, containing an Anguished Declaration of Love. He knows that both the man who sent it and the woman it was sent to knew it would read by others, indeed large parts were clearly aimed at such readers, but he still doesn't like it.
  • In Poul Anderson's "No Truce with Kings", a newly arrived alien finds the deaths resulting from their manipulations horrible; the old hand explains it's minimizing them in the long run, though nothing will wash the blood off.
  • In the Warlock Series novel Ordeal in Otherwhere, Charis sees Lantee taken prisoner and flees to Bring News Back. Later, when Thorvald is enumerating the problems, he says Lantee is probably prisoner, and she thinks he may be dead, and then that he's not mindlocked, and they may have used a Mind Probe on him. She turns pale and shaking enough to make him stop, take her hands, and tell her they must face the possibility. She tells him that she had just left him, and he assures her that she did the right thing.
  • In Sharpe's Triumph, McCandless tampers with a warrant and plays the Obstructive Bureaucrat. He is displeased with it, though he is certain that it was needed to prevent a greater injustice; he does demand that Sharpe give him his word, on the Bible of his innocence.
  • In the Spiral Arm novel On the Razor's Edge, when Pyati talks of how much trust Padaborn had put in Eglay, Eglay is ashamed of himself and tells him that he was supposed to maim Padaborn in what should have been a fair fight.
  • In the Time Patrol story "Delenda Est", Everard lies to Deirdre about his presence in her Alternate History, and then about their ability to go back — they will not return her to it, to be blotted out with the rest of it, but he feels guilty about both the lies and the way they are consigning everyone in that history to non-existence.
  • Tinker:
    • In Wolf Who Rules, Windwolf, despite his insistence that this is a Guilt-Free Extermination War, really hopes there are no oni children and is pleased to discover that half-oni children do not evince the oni hallmark Lack of Empathy.
    • In Elfhome, Riki confesses that what he did was dirty business but he'd do it again anyway; this is why he's helping Oilcan, in recompense.
  • Tortall Universe:
    • In the fourth Protector of the Small book, Lady Knight, Kel and her comrades encounter a patrol in enemy territory. Since their mission relies on being completely undetected and they have no time to deal with the complications of prisoners, Kel orders them to kill every enemy soldier. She knows while she says it that the decision will haunt her for a very long time.
    • The Trickster's Duet involves this a lot since Aly is a spy rather than someone with a sense of honor. While she has no problems with massive deception and causing the deaths of obvious enemies, she wrestles about the problem of Dunevon and Elsren, child heirs to the Rittevon throne who could be used as figureheads for a counterrevolution. When Kyprioth solves the problem with their deaths, she's both upset and stoic about the necessity.
  • In Triple, the hero repeatedly blackmails, bribes, and occasionally just beats people senseless to achieve his goal — obtaining the uranium Israel needs to build an atomic bomb (it's set in 1968). But he is sickened by his own behavior every time and wishes nothing more than that he could quit and give the job to someone else. The problem is, he is the best qualified and knows it, and his nation's enemies are already developing the bomb- so he has no choice but to go on.
  • In Irwin Shaw's World War II novel The Young Lions, one of the protagonists, an American soldier stationed in England listens to a sermon, where the priest says that soldiers should treat the entire war as Dirty Business; they shouldn't be proud about the Germans they killed, they should mourn them. "Kill, if you must, because in our weakness and in our error, we have found no other road to peace, but kill remorsefully, kill with a sense of sorrow, kill with economy for the immortal souls, who leave this life in battle".

    Live-Action TV 
  • Lots of characters on The 100 get this at one point or another, but it's especially common for Clarke, who starts the series as an Actual Pacifist, but ends up committing increasingly horrific acts of violence to keep herself and the people around her safe. Reaches a peak in the Season 2 finale "Blood Must Have Blood" when she irradiates Mount Weather, killing everyone inside (children included) in order to save her people. This is what finally pushes her from saying I Did What I Had to Do to deciding that she really can't call herself the good guy anymore. She ends up leaving Camp Jaha, because she can't be around the people she saved without being reminded of the horrible things she did for them.
  • In the series finale of Angel, when Lorne kills Lindsey. Lindsey believed that he had undergone a Heel–Face Turn (and did for that episode anyway), but he had appeared in the past to have performed such turns, only to be wooed back to the side of evil. In Angel's view, at least, he could be not be trusted not to become evil again. This underscores the differences between the views of the good guys on Angel and those on the parent series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as on the latter the good guys (except in one case when the person responsible had done a temporary Face–Heel Turn) never killed a potentially redeemable human for any reason other than self-defense. Just before Lorne does it, a visibly remorseful Lorne says that working for Angel has become "unsavory". The victim himself was more upset that Angel didn't even kill him personally.
    • Buffy did have Giles... but he'd be the first to acknowledge that he's not a good guy. And his version of self-defence is a little more... pro-active than most.
      Giles: She's a hero, you see. She's not like us.
      Ben: Us?
      Giles smothers Ben to remove the threat of Glory's return.
  • No shortage of this in Babylon 5, especially surrounding Cartagia's assassination. Even Vir feels that Emperor Cartagia has to die. Bonus points: while Londo is the one who is set up to do this, it's Vir of all people who actually ends up performing the act. As Vir drowns his sorrows in alcohol later, Londo can't say Vir did the right thing, only the necessary thing—and that the fact that Vir's feeling so much anguish over the act means that he still has a good heart, for which Londo envies him.
  • Boardwalk Empire:
    • In the season 5 flashbacks, Nucky's mentor Sheriff Jacob Lindsay justifies being the Commodore's hatchet man because he sees it as necessary to keep Atlantic City going. However, when he has to cover up for the Commodore raping a young girl, he can't stomach it anymore and walks away.
    • Nucky seems to harbor Lindsay's attitude towards a number of the dirty deeds in the present day.
  • Breaking Bad has Walt killing Krazy 8, a drug dealer that otherwise would have killed him and his famliy. In the season 3 finale, Jesse kills Gale, a replacement cook that Gus had planned to use instead of Walt and Jesse.
    • Walt rationalizes his drug manufacturing as being for the sake of providing money for his family, but as the show progresses, it's clear that this rationalization is nothing more than a facade and he's really just doing it for the power.
  • Better Call Saul:
    • Jimmy and Kim are shown having to rationalize some of the less savory things each of them does as lawyers.
      • In the season 5 premiere, Kim tries to convince a stubborn client named Bobby to take a five-month plea deal and avoid trial for fencing stolen mini-fridges. Jimmy appears and, upon hearing about the situation, proposes a scheme to make Bobby take the deal by posing as an antagonistic prosecutor. Kim is unnerved at the idea of scamming her client and orders Jimmy to leave. However, when Bobby and his pregnant wife ask what the argument was about, Kim finds herself going along with the ruse, telling them that Jimmy was a prosecutor who took the plea deal off the table. Bobby suddenly becomes desperate to take the deal, prompting Kim to flee to a stairwell to compose herself over what she has done.
      • Throughout season 5, Jimmy has to do rationalize that he's acting for the sake of his own self-preservation after Lalo takes him on as a client.
      • "Wexler v. Goodman" sees a case of this.
    • In the season 4 finale, after months of overseeing Werner Ziegler's construction of the underground lab and growing close to Werner, Mike is ordered by Gus to kill him after Werner escapes the compound and inadvertedly divulges details of the project to Lalo. Mike makes every attempt to reason Gus out of murder, but when it becomes clear to him that if he doesn't do it, Gus will have someone else do it, Mike takes it upon himself to carry out the deed and make it as quick and painless as he can. Subsequently, Mike goes into a lengthy tailspin, drinking excessively, losing his temper at Kaylee, and picking fights with a street gang. After he's almost killed in the second fight, Gus stages an intervention and appeals to Mike's desire to be a provider for his granddaughter, suggesting he use that to justify the unsavory activities. This works, and Mike adapts this attitude all the way through to his death in Breaking Bad, seeing as the offshore account Gus set up for him was set up in Kaylee's name.
  • The page quote comes from an episode of Burn Notice in which Michael helps a bad guy blow up his even-worse-guy boss in order to save a neighborhood from her gang.
    • Michael forces his mother to betray a friend in order to help him, for example, and is completely unrepentant about it (though he apologizes that it became necessary). He turns bad guys on other bad guys, helps gangs so they can help him...Michael Weston has a very white morality, but very grey methods.
  • British spy series Callan has a protagonist who hates his job and his boss for all the filth they make him do. Why he doesn't quit is doubtful - partly blackmail, partly a belief that the Soviets are slightly worse.
  • In Carnivàle, Ben killing Lodz falls into this. Samson also does a number of unethical things, but rarely expresses remorse for them.
  • Chernobyl The Animal Control teams are soldiers employed to literally Shoot the Dog (along with any other wildlife and pets they encounter), because they might be contaminated with radioactive material, and if they wander off they could contaminate the area around the Exclusion Zone. Bacho, the commanding officer, sees it as this trope and honestly tells the New Meat Pavel that he'll kill Pavel if he makes the animals suffer.
  • Daredevil (2015):
    • When he was twelve, Wilson Fisk was forced to kill his abusive father to protect his mother. The act was pretty much necessary, but the incident itself scarred Fisk for a long time, and in season 1, it's clear he still has nightmares about that day.
    • In the present day, Fisk harbors some degree of regret for having to order Elena Cardenas killed, as Karen bitterly observes watching him deliver a press conference after her death.
    • Matt views the violence he commits as Daredevil as something that he needs to do because the cops are too inept or corrupt to handle all crime in Hell's Kitchen.
    • In season 1, Karen Page is forced to shoot James Wesley to death after he kidnaps her and threatens to have Matt and Foggy killed if she doesn't lie and claim that Fisk is a good man. She is very torn up about what happened, and as it turns out, this isn't the first time she's killed someone, as in season 3, it turns out she had to shoot her drug-dealing boyfriend Todd to stop him from killing her brother Kevin with a tire iron.
    • Carl Hoffman is forced by Fisk to murder his own partner Christian Blake, whom Fisk had had shot for divulging information to Matt. Hoffman is reluctant to carry out the deed, as he and Blake have been friends for 35 years; but Fisk threatens to have him killed himself unless he does the deed himself. He's tearing up as he injects a syringe filled with poison into Blake's IV line, and the guilt over his actions prompts him to go into hiding, securing protection from Leland Owlsley that lasts until Fisk kills Owlsley for stealing from him. Subsequently, Hoffman becomes the weak link that ends up bringing down Fisk.
    • In season 3, it turns out that Fisk has a bunch of FBI agents on his payroll who are serving as his personal enforcers. How much they appreciate the work varies. Some like Dex take sadistic joy in doing Fisk's dirty work for him, while others are only working for him because of the dire consequences Fisk threatens to enact upon their families if they try to leave his employ. Dex and Nadeem's boss Tammy Hattley, for instance, is unrepentant about murdering an internal affairs agent to threaten Nadeem, but later privately tells Nadeem that Fisk killed one of her kids to get her to work for him, and is threatening to harm her daughter if she tries to turn on him. Nadeem himself doesn't like the work he's forced to do for Fisk after getting betrayed, but tries to rationalize it because he doesn't want to let his wife and son down. That is, until he's ordered by Fisk to be Dex's driver during a hit on Karen to avenge Wesley's death, during which Father Lantom and some innocent bystanders are killed.
  • Doctor Who: The Doctor almost always hates it when they have to do things like wipe out species or destroy planets if there is no other alternative to save the day. The few times they aren't displaying remorse are... not good.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • "The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword" is an ancient custom in the North, where the incumbent Lord Stark personally judges and carries out executions. It's meant as a safeguard against tyranny because a ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is and may become arbitrary. Ned's son, Robb, later follows this philosophy.
    • Ned euthanizes Lady himself because she deserves better than to be butchered by Cersei's men, but he's very afflicted by Robert's decision.
    • Stannis expresses some regret over killing Renly, but rationalizes that it was the only way to get back the forces that had been stolen from him.
    • One of the traits that set Varys apart in King's Landing is that unlike most of the other schemers (such as Tywin, Cersei, and Littlefinger), Varys seems to feel a degree of guilt for all the scheming he has to do. For example, it's plainly visible before and during Tyrion's trial that he absolutely hates what is happening, but keeps going because it's what he has to do.
    • A Discussed Trope when the Small Council (against the objections of Ned Stark) urge the assassination of Daenerys and her unborn child to avert a future invasion.
      Varys: It is a terrible thing we must consider, a vile thing. Yet we who presume to rule must sometimes do vile things for the good of the realm.
      Littlefinger: When you find yourself in bed with an ugly woman, best close your eyes, get it over with.
  • House of the Dragon: Rhaenys admits to Rhaenyra that she finds it distasteful to try to marry off her pre-teen daughter off to the grown Viserys, but the world of feudal politics means if she doesn't, someone else will grab the power.
  • In Law & Order Episode: True North, the District Attorney Adam Schiff literally states this trope, "It's a dirty business my friends", when capping a discussion of seeking the Death Penalty for a serial killer.
  • Luke Cage (2016): Shades' story arc in season 2 starts with him personally killing a potential gun buyer of Mariah's who insulted Mariah to his face. Shades is shaken by how rash he was in the moment, but attempts to rationalize it through the fact that right before this, Arturo was threatening to go to Misty Knight with what he knew about Mariah's operation. Later in the season, he's similarly torn when he finds out that his partner and prison lover Comanche is snitching to Captain Ridenhour. While he's willing to kill Comanche for being a snitch, he takes no joy in his actions, and is very much haunted by what he had to do to someone he trusted deeply, to the point that he begins faltering in his duties for Mariah.
  • Eliot Spencer of Leverage is the team's "hitter" and is the only one on the team to physically hurt people on a regular basis. Even if nearly everyone he takes down is asking for it, and he doesn't seem to have a problem with doing what has to be done, he's the only one on a team of career-criminals-turned-Robin-Hoods who describes himself as a bad guy (and not in a way that suggests he's proud of it either).
    • His dialogue in the Fight Ring episode to Sophie and the Gone Fishing Job to Hardison before they return to the militia camp illustrates that he has no illusions about the nature of his work, but he also knows that he is particularly suited to it and that it's sometimes entirely necessary, so he shoulders the responsibility. He takes the pain so others don't have to, because he is the one who CAN take it.
    • It is revealed that in the past Eliot committed acts for which there is no excuse or justification and it is the guilt over this that drives him to do what he does. Note that it's not out of a desire for redemption, because he believes with an utter certainty that he's already damned, and has made his peace with the fact.
  • In Merlin (1998), the titular wizard considers his role in helping Uther seduce Igraine to be Dirty Business.
  • Mission: Impossible has this happen frequently. The team explicitly has permission to do absolutely anything in order to complete their missions, so long as they don't get caught. However, when their plan requires bad things to happen to good people, they do try to get them back out of trouble again before they leave. In one notable episode, they kidnapped a woman and sold her into slavery so that they could arrange for her husband to find her on the block in order to turn him against the slave traders.
  • The Sopranos: When Tony Blundetto kills Billy Leotardo as revenge for the murder of Angelo Garepe, Billy's brother Phil swears revenge. Despite Tony Soprano being subject to heavy pressure to deliver his cousin to Johnny Sack (who has taken over the Lupertazzi crime family after Little Carmine's abdication) explicitly so he can be tortured and killed, Tony refuses and protects Blundetto against Phil. But Phil begins stalking New Jersey looking for Blundetto, hounding Christopher's mother, and brutally beating up Benny Fazio. It soon becomes clear that Tony's men refuse to allow themselves to be endangered all for the sake of protecting Blundetto, so Tony is forced to act. He tracks down Blundetto at their uncle Pat Blundetto's farm and kills him with a 12-gauge shotgun point-blank in order to save him from the worse fate he would've received at Phil's hands. Tony then gives Johnny Sack the location. Phil is furious to be deprived of his vengeance, but Tony and Johnny reach an accord over Blundetto's demise.
  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Sisko has several times done, or tacitly allowed to be done for him, some very Dirty Business. In the end of "In the Pale Moonlight", he sums his actions up himself:
    "I lied. I cheated. I bribed a man to cover the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But the most damning thing about it all: I think I can live with it. And if I had to do it all over again, I would. Garak was right about one thing: a guilty conscience is a small price to pay for the safety of us all. So I will learn to live with it. Because I can live with it. ... I can live with it."
  • The first season finale of Supernatural has the first instance of the Winchesters being able to kill a demon - if they're willing to ice the innocent, possessed human too.
    Dean: You know that guy I shot? There was a person in there.
    Sam: You didn't have a choice, Dean.
    Dean: Yeah, I know, that's not what bothers me.
    Sam: Then what does?
    Dean: Killing that guy, killing Meg - I didn't hesitate, I didn't even flinch. For you or Dad, the things I'm willing to do or kill, it scares me sometimes.
    • In seasons four and five, every time Sam drinks demon blood to fuel his powers he looks at it this way.
    • As an angel, Castiel is often quite focused on the big picture and is willing to commit some rather awful acts for the greater good, such as blowing up a town or killing a child, but he doesn't enjoy it and will often apologize to whoever's going suffer. This is exemplified in season six, when he decides to work with Crowley to open Purgatory so he can gain enough power to defeat Raphael before his brother restarts the Apocalypse. He knows what he's doing is far from good, and clearly feels guilty about it, but he does it anyway because he sees literally no other option besides just letting Earth get torched.
  • In Survivors, Tom is used as the go-to man whenever the group realizes that someone needs to be killed, whether out of mercy or otherwise. Despite the fact that it takes a toll on him, and he has been trying in his own way to escape his violent past, he goes through with it anyway because it needs to be done.

    Newspaper Comics 

    Tabletop Games 
  • Several people in Exalted have had to do terrible things for greater goods (up to and including saving the whole of Creation) while still feeling incredible guilt over it. The most prominent examples are Chejop Kejak (orchestrated the Usurpation and the Wyld Hunt) and the Scarlet Empress (followed up on saving Creation from a raksha invasion by establishing herself as the supreme and unquestionable ruler of the oppressive, albeit stable and secure, Realm, and frequently cries herself to sleep at night).

  • In Philoctetes, the generally honest Neoptolemus must trick Philoctetes on Odysseus' behalf to go with them to Troy in order that the Greeks could finally win the war. Especially given how much Philoctetes has suffered at the hands of Odysseus and some of the other Greeks, this doesn't sit very well with Neoptolemus.

    Video Games 
  • Halo:
    • Cortana, in the final cutscene of Halo: Combat Evolved, assures that Chief they did what they had to do by destroying the titular ringworld to save the galaxy, despite the fact that an unknown number of UNSC allies were still trapped on its surface, though it's clear from her tone of voice that she's trying to convince herself and the Master Chief, not stating her actual feelings.
    • The entire Office of Naval Intelligence runs a whole host of shady operations, ranging from smearing reporters, to sabotaging humanity's closest and most sincere alien ally, to kidnapping children and forcing them into lifetime military service. Not surprisingly, many of ONI's own people feel pretty bad about the things they're done, even if they'd do it again under the same circumstances.
      • The same cannot be said for many of ONI's leaders, however, who have started moving into Knight Templar territory after the Covenant War ended by doing the aforementioned shady things without being justified by necessity or showing any remorse for it. Indeed, several characters actually behave with a high degree of self-righteousness regarding these actions whilst condemning others for acts that are - at worst - equally shady. Only time will tell how this plays out, but ONI's behavior has resulted in the fanbase wanting a game where the Master Chief is fighting ONI instead of the Covenant remnants.
    • The firing of the Halos by the Forerunners, which killed off all sentient life left in the Milky Way, save for the lucky few who were evacuated beforehand. Spark explicitly states in the original trilogy that they were weapons of last resort, and only used once the Forerunners had exhausted every other strategic option available to them. The only reason the IsoDidact went through with it was because the alternative was all life (even those who had been evacuated) being exterminated via angry and twisted Hive Mind Eldritch Abominations. To say that he was not happy about carrying it out is the Understatement of the century.
      "Forgive us."
  • Faldio from Valkyria Chronicles justifies his shooting of Alicia to activate her Valkyria powers as needed to save Gallia. He felt guilty after he had a chance to think about his actions which led to his Heroic Sacrifice at the Marmota.
  • Axel, from Kingdom Hearts, eventually moves into this territory. In Chain of Memories, he's mostly a heartless killer. Most of his victims are traitors, being punished for their actions. But Vexen and Zexion were innocent, killed apparently (but as 358/2 Days reveals there was in fact, a purpose) on a whim. But as his friendship with Roxas develops, he starts becoming a little ashamed of everything he's done. In the end, he actually laments that he "always gets the dirty work." Right before accepting another assassination job, purposefully trying to invoke I Did What I Had to Do for the sake of his own conscience.
  • Daughter for Dessert:
    • Invoked by the protagonist just before breaking into Mortelli’s office.
    • Lampshaded by Mortelli himself after he single-handedly derails the protagonist's trial.
  • God of War: Kratos has no choice but to push a caged soldier up an incline to burn him alive as a Human Sacrifice. As he does so, the man begs for his life. Kratos, who has slaughtered, and will slaughter, countless people, looks outright disgusted before he begins. "The Gods demand sacrifice... from all of us." Oh, and it's not a cutscene. The player has to listen to the man's screams while pulling him up the hill themselves. Unfortunately lost in non-American versions, where the cage holds a generic zombie enemy.
  • Grovyle in Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time/Darkness/Sky is willing to kill (and almost does at one point) to prevent the planet's paralysis, but has no malice against his targets, even once saying "Forgive me" before attacking.
  • Mordin Solus of Mass Effect 2 feels this way about upgrading the genophage; while he still believes it was ultimately the best option, he's also absolutely guilt-ridden by it due to his rigid personal morals.
    • In Mass Effect 3, provided Mordin survived the events of the second game, Mordin goes on to cure the genophage in the third game. Not only that, depending on your dialogue choices, he may angrily confess that he made a poor decision and tell Shepard that the only way to stop him from curing the genophage is to shoot him. He is not bluffing.
      Mordin Solus: I made a mistake!
    • The right mix of Renegade actions and Paragon dialogue will make Shepard feel this way too. Especially if you chose the Ruthless background. At one point in the sequel, Shepard is asked about Virmire. Paragon Shepard's response is angry.
      Shepard: I left a friend to die that day, and I didn't do it casually.
  • In Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater Naked Snake is sent to kill his mentor and the Cobra unit. Needless to say, he is reluctant to do so. Then it turns into a massive subversion - turns out Snake had been sent to kill the Boss because it was politically convenient, which is what drives Snake to become Big Boss.
  • In Hakuouki, Hijikata and Kondou arrange and enact the assassination of former comrade Itou before Itou's imperialist splinter faction can cause trouble for them or for the shogunate. Their role in the assassination involves getting Itou drunk at a "friendly get-together" before sending him off into the path of his murderers, after which they quietly discuss how lousy what they're doing is.
    Hijikata: This is our duty, but it doesn't mean we have to be proud of it. Sometimes the path's dirty.
  • Discussed in Crysis 3 when Psycho says that Claire feeling regret for skinning him in no way absolves her of guilt.
  • Sakazaki Yuuya of Hatoful Boyfriend feels like this over killing his half-brother so his full brother could live when he was a child. He had to do it but the guilt weighs on him years later, it's one of the many things he hides under a cheerful attitude, and he's completely accepted the deed and his reasons, which gives him a kind of strength as The Atoner.
  • Litchi Faye-Ling in BlazBlue is set to fulfill her promise to save her friend Lotte Carmine from the fate of being Arakune, while having to withstand her ailing health due to the Boundary corruption. While she still remains a kindhearted lady, she is Forced into Evil and had to become an NOL member under both Hazama and Relius Clover to withhold her ailing status so she has more time to save Roy, but she doesn't trust both of them and her will wavers about what she is doing. This culminates in Chronophantasma when she is finally convinced to steel her will to save Roy, but the cure cannot be procured in this world and the only way to do so is to go along with Relius to recreate the world to a point where it's still possible to save Roy by preventing him to commit the research that will turn him to Arakune. Litchi accepts it reluctantly, as she was forced to fight her friend Bang Shishigami, she did it with remorse, apologizing before having to coldly beat him up. To further how this is actually a Dirty Business, when Carl Clover decided to do the same for his own plans, Litchi warned him that he shouldn't go down the villains' path, showing that she clearly dislikes this position but it's the only way available to fulfill the promise she made, and she doesn't want Carl to suffer the same thing. Though Carl decided to bear with it anyway.
  • The second Masyaf Key in Assassin's Creed: Revelations shows that, after killing Al Mualim at the end of the first game, Altaïr burned the body to be certain that it wasn't another illusion created by the Apple of Eden even though it went against everything that he and the other Assassins (and the culture to which they belonged) believed in. This caused a schism in the Assassins between those who believed Altaïr was justified in this precaution and those who rallied behind Abbas, who thought that Altaïr was just trying to seize power after killing Al Mualim.
  • In the backstory of We Happy Few, England was invaded by the Nazis during World War II and had to do A Very Bad Thing to survive. Whatever it was, it was so abjectly horrifying that the people of Britain resorted to self-inflicted Getting Smilies Painted on Your Soul just to prevent complete societal collapse, despite the fact that the victims of their actions were, you know, Nazis. It's ultimately subverted. The Very Bad Thing was that they didn't resist at all after the initial invasion even when their children were stolen, and they later learned the German occupation force were literal Paper Tigers.
  • "If I gave any other answer, would an arrow from the rookery snuff me like a candle?" Like Mordin above by Dragon Age: Inquisition Leliana had slid down the moral slope into this: some of her actions she's happy to advise if they are to help a friend, while some she sees as pungent but necessary.
  • In Persona 5, the Phantom Thieves are well aware that their actions are not that of pure justice, and are really acting of their accord and morals but the fact is that the people they targeted are either so far gone or at the precipice of falling; as well as being in positions that prevent the law from touching them, that Heel–Face Brainwashing is the lesser of two evils. This is lampshaded before Kunikazu Okumura's palace stating that not everyone with warped desires is evil enough to brain wash.
  • Dawn of War II: Retribution: twenty years after Chaos Rising, Diomedes is finally convinced (via Exact Eavesdropping) that his Chapter Master has fallen to Chaos. He also has at least four centuries of service to the Chapter, and exactly how much of that service was spent killing innocents and destroying proof of Kyras' corruption instead of protecting the Chapter's secrets causes a Heroic BSoD, deciding to hold position on a Space Hulk filled with orks and Tyranids. It takes the Ancient breaking his vow of silence to snap him out of it and get back to fighting the Emperor's enemies, for real this time.
  • Overwatch has Blackwatch, a sister organization to the eponymous peace-keeping army that handled black ops and tasks that Overwatch could not officially sanction. While most members of Blackwatch had no qualms with the morally ambiguous nature of their work, some, like Cole Cassidy, began to develop doubts, particularly after an operation to Venice to abduct a wanted criminal for questioning that ended in his commanding officer, Gabriel Reyes, killing the target in cold blood.
  • Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun shows that GDI is just as capable of playing dirty as Nod, even if they are the "good guys" of the series.
    Gen. Solomon: And Hassan? If he (Anton Slavik) gains more power, you will become useless to us. And useless things have a way of disappearing.
  • Outpost 2 features two different factions that were originally a single group of colonists, who ultimately became irreconcilably divided over what course they thought should be taken with the future of their new planet. One faction being in favor of extensive and aggressive terraforming operations, and the other preferring to adapt to the planet's existing fairly-hostile environment. The game's backstory eventually reveals that the schism was originally not nearly so bad. Conspirators on both sides of the conflict ran a number of simulations that convinced them two separate colonies would have a higher chance of survival than a single massive one, so they deliberately worked to enflame tensions and encourage a split.

  • In Blue Yonder, yes, it's dirty, but that's why they get paid so much.
  • In Doc Rat, Allan the security guard is just about in shock: a Tap on the Head killed the snake. Who was trying to murder a whole bunch of people.
  • In Girl Genius, Barry was crying when he put the locket on Agatha (in a flashback). She needs it to protect her, but it will damp her down and make her unhappy.
  • In El Goonish Shive, Abraham, being a Knight Templar, considered killing Ellen to be this when he first found out the nature of the "curse" the Dewitchery Diamond had separated from Elliot to create Ellen. To make matters worse, he is only going through with it, not because he honestly believes it has to be done for some greater good, but because he swore a vow to destroy the "cursed" beings created by the diamond (he never thought about whether someone would use it to remove a relatively benign/non-dangerous curse like having their gender swapped). When he's forcibly stopped from carrying out the execution, and presented with an argument that the exact words of his vow are irrelevant (he really just promised to protect innocent people from the diamond) he seems genuinely glad and swears a new vow to seek redemption for his previous carelessness.
  • It is part of being a Regular in Tower of God to betray your comrades when you notice that they're hindering your ascension of the Tower. The Regulars get sick of this very soon.
  • Many Wapsi Square characters consider the plan to save the world to fall under this category. Brandi doesn't like it, nor does Shelly.
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: In the Distant Prologue, the Icelandic coast guard is shown going full Quarantine with Extreme Prejudice towards The Plague via gunning down any refugee boat that tries to reach the country. One segment follows a radar reader aboard an Icelandic coast guard ship quitting his job due to having Past Experience Nightmares for several nights straight.
  • I'm the Grim Reaper: Zig zagged. Scarlet’s first kill is a serial killer whom she feels the world is better off without, and begins to have the view of all sinners deserving death and a fate in hell. But after Ana she begins to reconsider this, acknowledging that sins are all very complicated.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Prince Zuko says I Did What I Had to Do in season three to excuse his actions in the previous season. It more or less fails to even convince Zuko himself.
  • In Gravity Falls, Stan Pines runs a tourist trap called the Mystery Shack, which has a variety of cheaply made oddities and souvenirs. It turns out that the Mystery Shack is actually his missing brother's cabin. Stan had been working hard for weeks in the cabin before going broke, and had been mistaken for his brother by the residents of Gravity Falls. With no alternatives left, he guiltily takes his brother's name and converted the cabin and Ford's research into an attraction— all in order to continue paying the mortgage and work on repairing the portal every night since the fateful incident.

    Real Life 
  • Curtis "Bombs Away" LeMay, supposedly the inspiration for General Jack Ripper, had this to say regarding the US fire bombing (and later atomic bombing) campaign which killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens:
    As far as casualties were concerned I think there were more casualties in the first attack on Tokyo with incendiaries than there were with the first use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The fact that it's done instantaneously, maybe that's more humane than incendiary attacks, if you can call any war act humane. I don't, particularly, so to me there wasn't much difference. A weapon is a weapon and it really doesn't make much difference how you kill a man. If you have to kill him, well, that's the evil to start with and how you do it becomes pretty secondary. I think your choice should be which weapon is the most efficient and most likely to get the whole mess over with as early as possible.