One of the easiest ways to highlight just how bad something or someone evil is: have an otherwise-remorseless villain reject it.
It's often to show that a new villain is really bad if even Doctor Annihilation is appalled by them. Another way that it's used is to keep a villain safely on the "still sympathetic" side of the Moral Event Horizon; give him something that he simply will not do. It may be specifically invoked to prove that it's OK for our hero to work with villains who have standards when the need is great enough. This can be strange if handled badly, with one character objecting to someone's crossing a line even if they have crossed many, many others, leading to confusion and possibly an unintentional edge into Blue-and-Orange Morality. Why, after all, should a criminal think shooting a particular single orphan be worse than killing every single orphan in the Throwaway Country, or a serial killer be upset by petty theft, or...? This might be deliberate however, in order to show the Moral Myopia of the villains and make the viewers question what is right, what is wrong, and if there even is such a thing as more wrong. Also to show how complex human beings can be, what is acceptable for them and what drives them to make different choices in different scenarios. It is particularly ironic when two characters display this and their different understanding of morality by objecting to each other's crossing.
The most common taboos of this type in contemporary Western works involve sexual violence or ill-treatment of children. Or both at once. Common gangster-story examples are to have the Neighbourhood-Friendly Gangsters, by contrast with the Ruthless Foreign Gangsters, refuse to sell illegal drugs or to be disrespectful and abusive in their treatment of the women who they pimp. If your story takes place in a Mob War where one side is slightly better than the other, it's most likely because the "good" side has standards. In older works, or historical fiction with authentic moral attitudes, common examples are breaches of Sacred Hospitality, treachery against one's leader, or general breaches of oaths.
The trope title is frequently spouted by the Noble Demon, in order to justify his evil self-identification. The typical format of their declaration is usually along the lines of "I may be Y, but I am/am not an X Y!" (as seen in the picture)
The Complete Monster in particular has a tendency to provoke invocations of this trope on the part of other villains, due to having next to zero moral standards (if that, and even then they're never treated as a mitigating factor for their ilk) and generally being the absolute worst when it comes to villainy. Complete Monsters themselves can never play this trope straight unless the example is Played for Laughs, as they will stoop to whatever low they can to carry out their goals.
I Gave My Word is another common variant, which may let the heroes agree to Combat by Champion. Some villains may maintain their standards through use of a Villainous Vow. "You Monster!" is also a common vow when this trope is in effect.
Can lead to an Enemy Mine if the evil is another villain. Can also lead to a Pet the Dog moment. Can contribute to making an Anti-Hero or Villain Protagonist A Lighter Shade of Grey than their enemies. Can also make it so that a conflict where both major factions are malicious has someone for the audience to root for. In rare cases, a HeelFace Turn can even develop from the villain taking a Redemption Quest as a direct result of the conflict (most likely from Heel Realization).
In comedy, it's often used to frame a Take That! against a real-life action (such as digital piracy) or profession (such as lawyer) that the villain is "too good" to associate with (or alternatively making fun of those who treat it as a crime); it's sometimes also played for laughs with Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking, where the one thing that the villain objects to is something comically minor compared to their usual crimes. Contrast Moral Myopia and Even Evil Has Loved Ones, where the 'standards' apply only to the villain's allies and Arson, Murder, and Admiration where the eviler one is the better. This trope is one of the distinguishing differences between most villains and The Unfettered.
Compare and contrast Pragmatic Villainy, when the villain's refusal to partake in the abhorrent act is far more selfish (or in the case of a group of villains against a single one, group-beneficial); Eviler Than Thou, where the villain is dismissive of another villain for not being evil enough; Even Mooks Have Loved Ones, where minions defect to protect a loved one from their boss; Do Wrong, Right for cases where it's not what is done but rather how it's done that the villain has standards for; Evil Versus Oblivion, where one villain is trying to defend the world (himself included) against another villain who wants to destroy everything; and Family Values Villain for where the standards are very... old-fashioned. Often the deal with many Lawful Evil villains, but sometimes not. Can occasionally be the cause of a Break the Badass moment, when the badass in question is the bad guy. As said above it may be used by a character who also crossed the Moral Event Horizon and so he may be, in theory (if not wholly) just as evil as the target of this trope. The Politically Correct Villain always considers themself part of this trope, though whether the writer and audience agree tends to vary.
See also Hitman with a Heart, where this Trope may apply. (Not all characters who fit the Professional Killer Trope are evil depending on their choice of targets, but most are, and a lot do have some scruples. They're particularly likely to have the Even Evil Has Standards variant Selective Slaughter.)
Can even involve Conscience Makes You Go Back, Sudden Principled Stand. See also Evil Virtues and Villainous Valour, for good traits and virtues that villains commonly practice. The inversions of this trope are Well-Intentioned Extremist and Utopia Justifies the Means, when it turns out that goodness is willingly crossing the Moral Event Horizon. This trope is a common trait in Affably Evil characters. On the other hand, while Faux Affably Evil villains do not possess much sincerity, even they could conceivably have their limits. A subtrope of Everyone Has Standards.
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- Big Finish Doctor Who:
- In the audio drama The Curse of Davros, Davros explains the reason he chose to go back to the Napoleonic Wars and team up with Napoleon Bonaparte rather than any other time period when a powerful warlord nearly conquered the continent is because all the others had impure reasons for seeking power, including the one who had an obsession with meaningless genetic differences between humans. Of course, given the Daleks are poster-cyborgs for A Nazi by Any Other Name, there's a bit of Hypocrisy involved there.
- In the audio drama The Sontaran Ordeal, the Sontaran Jask is disgusted by his superior officer, a Miles Gloriosus who believes We Have Reserves. The Doctor and temporary companion Sarana have trouble getting their head round the idea this is any different from normal Sontaran behaviour.
Doctor: Sontarans are used to high casualties.
Jask: Casualties are acceptable if they have purpose. Those deaths were ... needless and without glory.
Jask: He sent landing parties. When they were attacked, he used it as an excuse to counter-attack. For his personal glory.
Sanara: [scoffs] I thought Sontarans lived for glory!
Jask: The glory of serving the Sontaran Empire! This campaign does not benefit the Empire! Drakkis has no strategic value. Stenk saw only an... easy win.
- In BloomCounty, Opus suggests to an out-of-work Steve Dallas that he take up cartooning. He angrily replies, "I have some scruples, dude!"
- In Candorville gangsta Con Man Clyde feels that his friend Susan has been making poor decisions lately.
Clyde: You're in a graveyard at midnight playing fetch with a wolf!
Susan: It's nice and private!
Clyde: You lent money to me!
Susan: Aye Dios Mio, what's wrong with me?!
- One series of strips had Dogbert starting up a business where he sells positive reviews. He's more than happy to praise your horrible book or provide quotes to advertise terrible movies...but even he won't deal with "filthy dot-com owners."
- Catbert is called the "Evil Director of Human Resources", but in this strip, he clearly can't side with the clearly incompetent CEO against Alice.
- A Doonesbury story arc had Zonker's "Uncle" Duke drugged by a witch doctor and enslaved. When Zonker tried to buy Duke's freedom, he wanted proof that this was Duke he was purchasing, so he told one of the slavers to describe a certain tattoo Duke had. There was a pause, and then the slaver said, "That's the most sick, disgusting..."
- In Garfield, Garfield will eat almost anything and has no problem with killing the food himself, and will eat birds alive. He is shocked, though, when he finds out Jon's parents have turned Jon's pet chicken Nadine into "Nadine Noodle Soup" because "she was family!"
- The character J. Wellington Wimpy is not a good person, technically. He's at best a mooch and at worst a con artist. But when offered a hundred thousand dollars if he'll kill a man (offered because Wimpy looks like he'll do anything for money), Wimpy mournfully tells his would-be employer that while he does need the money, "But, too, sir, the man I am about to murder needs his life."
- In the Plunder Island story arc, Wimpy is horrified when the Sea Witch asks him to prove his love by killing Popeye (It Makes Sense in Context). He does try to go through with it, but only because the Sea Witch tells him she'll "slit [his] gizzard and throw it overboard for the sharks to nibble at" if he doesn't. He tries to stall by sharpening the knife until the blade is gone, and jumps at Popeye's plan to get out of doing the job.
- In Rocky, the owner of a pornographic magazine fires Rocky because he was offended by a gag strip Rocky drew involving pedophilic incest.
- This trope is Invoked in This Modern World. Tea Party Tim and Plutocrat Pete both have disdain for the federal government, but when Tim wants to force the government to default in order to control spending, Pete is horrified.
Pete: I thought your uninformed outrage would be useful in my eternal struggle to avoid taxation! I didn't realize you were a nihilistic moron willing to crash the entire economy!
- In The Wizard of Id, the King is a cruel tyrant (and even admits it) but shooting at a caged deer left out for hunters for that specific reason? He's not THAT cruel.
- Solvin from The Fallen Gods will happily steal, maim, murder, and torture, but draws the line at slavery. Or leaving a corpse naked. He's very complex!
- Despite Kakos Industries priding itself on evil and all things evil, the company rarely stoops low when it comes to evil stemmed from ignorance in which Corin, a Corrupt Corporate Executive himself, finds to be an annoyance and waste in this.
- Midst: Even Spahr is appalled when Phineas finally breaks down and nearly beats Guthrie to death in his desperation to get him to talk. It's not the violence that bothers him: it's the desperation in Phineas' eyes.
- In On The Threshold Tiago Cabral's horrific experiments and rituals that he carried out on his slaves were so disturbing that when they finally rose up in revolution, even his neighboring slaveholding plantation owners refused to help him.
- After the terrorist attack on the school in Beslan, a political cartoon showed Satan having his lawyer-devil send a cease-and-desist order to the terrorists because they were "giving evil a bad name."
- More "crazy" than evil, but one cartoon about birthers had Charlie Sheen watching one on FOX News and telling him to get some help
- One World War II Political Cartoon demonstrated the Germans preparing to blow up Rome. Even a ghost of a Vandal (the Vandals sacked Rome during the waning days of the Empire) is appalled by this attempt at destruction.
- An example from one Nazi to another: A Nazi wants to leave his wife over an eye twitch, claiming it proves that she is "genetically inferior". Even the Nazi racial propagandist he is writing to thinks that would be cruel.
- Adventures in Odyssey: Richard Maxwell is okay with lying, corporate espionage, and sabotage before his HeelFace Turn. But when Dr. Regis Blackgaard forces him to blow one of the machines at Whit's End up and injures Lucy, Maxwell turns against him.
- Old Harry's Game:
- Used and then immediately played with a bit, after a baby gets sent to Hell by mistake. The demons protest, stating that they can't torment it because even they have standards. Plus, they'd need much smaller instruments.
- In the same series, Thomas is such a disgusting moral vacuum that Judas Iscariot calls him "The Guv'nor" and Saddam Hussein refuses to buy weapons off him because he is too dodgy. Even Satan is shocked by his rap sheet. (When he tries to sell Satan his family's souls in exchange for his own, Satan quoted the trope name almost verbatum.) At the start of the second season, Satan has turned him into a dysentery bacterium because he's lowering the tone of the place.
- In one episode, Satan decides to let Nero be in charge of Hell while he's busy doing something else and all of the demons in Hell (who have so far shown to enjoy constantly torturing people) are disgusted by what he's done.
- Satan also claims to have two morals, one of which is never directly murdering people. It used to be three, but then he got cynical.
- There is a Pit of Demons Who Are Too Violent Even For Hell.
- Fox News Radio reporter Todd Starnes, known for his defense of conservative Christians and his negative coverage of the gay community, appeared on the radio talk show of fringe End Times conspiracy theorist Rick Wiles. After Wiles suggested that the head of a progressive religious freedom group be "met in a dark alley by a couple of special forces commandos and given an attitude adjustment," Starnes promptly chewed him out over his rhetoric and ended the interview.
- Subverted in The Men from the Ministry, when Sir Gregory wants Lamb and Lennox-Brown to somehow get rid of Ms. Bentwater's overbearing mummy. Lamb suggests contacting the Mafia, which Sir Gregory immediately shoots down... since they don't know their address.
- Dawn of a New Age: Oldport Blues:
- Devin is a Smug Snake who doesn't bat an eye when his fellow gang members create a monster that kills people, but even he rankles at his family's overt fringe conservatism and racist history.
- Subverted with Daigo: it seems at first that he objects to hurting children when he stops his monster from chomping down on two kids. But then the children start making a scene, and he sics the monster on them to keep them quiet.
- NationStates has Gregoryisgodistan, which in spite of being one of the most evil dictatorships in the Multiverse, despises gender inequality and all who support it.
- This Is War has Sion, who is a seemingly merciless sadomasochistic war demon who kills for no reason, judge five other demons for ganging up on one person.