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Grey-and-Gray Morality

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"Right or wrong is not what separates us and our enemies. It's our different standpoints, our perspectives that set us apart. Both sides blame one another. There is no good or bad side. Just two sides with different views."
Squall Leonheart, Final Fantasy VIII

In an all-grey conflict, neither side is totally good nor completely evil. Both sides have a strong, justifiable reason for fighting, and contain a mixture of people of all kinds, from admirable, upstanding individuals to vicious, slimy scumbags.

In most cases, one side has better reasons and more good people than the other. The protagonists usually fight for this better side, and if they don't, they'll switch sides before the end. While the audience roots for the better side, they still have sympathy for the opposition, and often specific characters from the other side will be seen as a Worthy Opponent.

The result of such a conflict depends on where the story lies on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. At the idealistic end, both sides will eventually realize that fighting is futile and end up putting aside their differences to learn from each other and make a new and better world. At the centre, one side usually ends up crushing the other; this brings about peace, but of a hollow, depressing kind, as a faction with noble ideals has been destroyed. At the cynical end, both sides gradually become more extremist and less sympathetic as the war drags on until eventually the stronger side utterly defeats the other, leading to harsh oppression (and/or elimination) of anyone who holds the weaker faction's views, which eventually results in the stronger side writing history books painting them as the noble heroes triumphant against the evil dissidents who threatened their ways. That, or both parties simply end up destroying each other, so no one wins in the end.

In some cases, the story will end with both sides teaming up against an unambiguously evil third faction, who may even have been behind the war in the first place, a la Divide and Conquer. When this villain is defeated, the grey sides almost invariably decide to live in peace (in the harsher version, the casualties from fighting that villain may find that there is actually now enough of whatever they fought over for all the survivors. Ultra-harsh version of this has the realization that the resources have been spent on the war).

A result of the above is that Grey and Gray Morality has one potentially great advantage: It can be easier to maintain suspense regarding the ending. In a Black-and-White Morality, Black-and-Gray Morality or even White-and-Grey Morality situation, the ending is almost always a Foregone Conclusion; good wins in the end, it's just a matter of how. In a Grey-and-Gray situation, either side might conceivably win, or both, or neither. Another great advantage of this kind of moral model is that the experience can end up entirely different between two viewers: one viewer may prefer to side with Faction A over Faction B for any number of different reasons, and another viewer may think the opposite for other reasons. Properly written, this can make for some very interesting story-telling. Video Games in particular are a good medium for this, due to their interactive nature.

Can be the result of a long-term Graying Morality of a Black and White narrative.

Note that the sides often will still be Dress-Coded for Your Convenience.

Contrast with Black-and-White Morality. Compare Both Sides Have a Point, Black-and-Gray Morality, White-and-Grey Morality, Protagonist-Centered Morality, Evil Versus Evil, Good Versus Good, Morality Kitchen Sink, Order Versus Chaos, The Horseshoe Effect and A Lighter Shade of Grey. Feuding Families and Cycle of Revenge stories tend to fall under this, as do many depictions of historical wars. A Mob War may be this, but may instead fall under Black-and-Gray Morality or Evil vs. Evil. See Grey-and-Gray Insanity, when this type of thinking is a sign of a character's mental instability. See also Morality Tropes and Philosophy Tropes.

Any betrayals within a Grey and Gray Morality Universe will, by their very nature, be Hazy Feel Turns.

Example subpages:

Other examples:

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    Films — Animated 

  • The Monkees' song "Shades of Grey" is about this.
    But today there is no day or night
    Today there is no dark or light
    Today there is no black or white
    Only shades of grey
  • A Billy Joel song with the same name as the above is about how he goes from the Black-and-White Morality of youth to this, while simultaneously warning of Black-and-White Insanity. Or does he?
  • French singer Jean Jacques Goldman titled one of his songs "Entre gris clair et gris foncé" ("Between Light Gray and Dark Gray"). Specifically, its lyrics are about the increase of ambiguous morality in fiction.
    Dulled good guys, troubling bad guys
    Devils aren't so black anymore
    Nor whites wholly innocent
  • Angels & Airwaves have "Epic Holiday", from the Love album.
    Nobody's right
    Nobody's wrong
    Life's just a game
    It's just one epic holiday
  • The Dave Mason song "We Just Disagree"
    So let's leave it alone, 'cause we can't see eye to eye
    There ain't no good guy, there ain't no bad guy
    There's only you and me and we just disagree
  • Sabaton's song "Father" discusses the controversy over the career of 20th century German chemist Fritz Haber, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for inventing the process to generate ammonia from pure hydrogen and nitrogen. As the song notes, this process enabled both dramatic improvements in the food supply through the use of synthetic fertilizers, and dramatic improvements in explosives. Haber was also a key figure in the German chemical weapons program during World War I.
    Haber-Bosch, the great alliance
    Where's the contradiction?
    Fed the world by ways of science
    Sinner or a saint?

    Father of toxic gas and chemical warfare
    His dark creation has been revealed
    Flow over no-man's-land, a poisonous nightmare
    A deadly mist on the battlefield

    Myths & Religion 
  • Reynard the Fox fables evoke this. Reynard is a trickster, and frequently the bane of other characters, but all characters are flawed. They are all animals (just like we are) and act according to their instincts. Reynard is the folk hero, but is not "good" or "bad", he is just as flawed as all the other characters.
  • Similarly, Wolf and/or Coyote, depending on the region and tribe (and even storyteller). Sometimes, he's a Prometheus-like creature who stole fire from the Gods to give birth to or help humanity. Sometimes he's just looking for a meal, and isn't any more harmful than Bugs Bunny. Sometimes, he's a rapist coward who murders men, women, and children by tricking them into deadly games. One rape of a woman leads him into pitying her and helping her give birth, while other tales have him return food and protect those he stole from. He's a complicated case.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • The Revolution vs Palaestra conflict in Super World Of Sports, a homage to the various dojo wars of sumo wrestling and another form of the All Japan\New Japan rivalry. It crossed over into Black-and-Grey Morality when Geki Dojo entered the picture though, as their manager KY Wakamatsu was transparently evil.
  • Vince Russo believes pro wrestling ought to work this way where the concept of a heel and a face isn't a line down the middle and characters should act naturally to achieve their objectives rather than abiding by their defined alignment. Unfortunately he isn't very good at making this happen so when it's attempted it just ends up confusing and everyone winds up with weak characterizations across the board.
  • While observing the happening of various promotions in the USA and Japan, Pro Wrestling Is Art found this response.
    “Pro Wrestling Is Destroying Someone Else’s Dreams To Achieve Yours”
    – Ice Ribbon – 2011-12-25 – Korakuen Hall – Tokyo, Japan
  • Kyle O'Reilly vs Austin Aries in Ring of Honor. Kyle O'Reilly was correct about Aries abandoning the company for not giving him enough money even though he was being paid more to do less work than any other wrestler in ROH. That Aries told a sob story about the The Wrestler to make people think he was leaving the industry entirely only to turn around and sign with ROH's all but official at the time arch rival TNA. But he failed to acknowledge that Aries at least admitted he had a problem and was (supposedly) trying to become a better person. For the most part, fans treated O'Reilly as the face but did have sympathy and respect for Aries.
  • The feud between Las Sicarias (Ivelisse Vélez and Mercedes Martinez in this case) and The Twisted Sisters (Holidead and Thunder Rosa). The former were faces with a heel mission statement, the latter heels with a face outlook. They had many of the same straight heel groups to beat up on such as the Cutie Pie Club and the same hapless friend to tend to (La Rosa Negra). Over time their rivalries over Tag Team title belts became overwhelming, making them forget their enemies (which is fine on paper, winning belts is the job) and their friend (which is less fine, though her loyalties would be in conflict if they hadn't).

  • In Troll Cops, the Magpie comes back from her Bad Future with a very strong belief in a clear Black-and-White Morality, getting her in trouble very quickly. In the first midseason finale, Rose finally drills home for her the fact that there is no black and white, and what really exists is one of these.
    Rose: Those of us who fight for good, even as grey as we are, do our best to save as many lives as we can. We do the best we can, but sometimes we have to make sacrifices. Sometimes we do unsavory actions like lying, cheating and stealing. Like taking bribes, helping criminals, or killing unsavory people. But despite all our problems we are still trying to do the right thing.

  • Part of what made Carmen so controversial in its first run were the morally questionable actions of Carmen and Don Jose. On the one hand, Carmen starts out as an emotionally manipulative Femme Fatale, whereas Don Jose starts out as a Nice Guy who can’t say “No.” On the other hand, by the end of the opera, Don Jose has become a Crazy Jealous Guy, whereas Carmen dies defending her freedom from him.
  • Cesare - Il Creatore che ha distrutto has Cesare Borgia as its protagonist, so obviously, the Borgias aren't going to get the Historical Villain Upgrade they're usually subjected to. But Giuliano della Rovere, their enemy who eventually, some 15 years after this story, defeats them and becomes the history-writing victor responsible for said upgrade, is portrayed sympathetically as well. Both he and Cesare think they have the answers to the problems of the world, and aren't above murdering, lying and bribing their ways to power to enact the reforms they imagine.
  • Into the Woods uses this in relation to fairy tales; for example, Jack might be the hero, but he still killed someone's son. The point of the musical is to show that people are not good or evil, but just people.
    There are rights and wrongs and inbetweens
    No-one waits when fortune intervenes
    Witches can be right, giants can be good.
    You decide what's right, you decide what's good.
    Someone is on your side.
    Someone else is not.
    While we're seeing our side
    Maybe we forgot: they are not alone.
    No one is alone.
    • The main characters' dilemma in the second act is choosing whether they want to give Jack to the giant and save themselves or spare him and let the giant kill everyone in the kingdom.
  • Peer Gynt plays this straight on the title character. Come the fourth act, he lampshades it heavily, relating this as his philosophy of life: balancing out the bad deeds with good ones. For instance, he deals with slaves, and also trades in pagan idols. For every pagan idol he sells, he makes sure a heathen is baptized.
  • The Pillowman uses it to stunning effect. From the beginning, Tupolski is clearly the hero of the story, Katurian is a Magnificent Bastard writer and murderer, and Ariel is the grey between the two, clearly being opposed to Katurian but constantly going against Tupolski. It's turned completely on its head when Katurian is revealed to be innocent, or at least under extenuating circumstances for the three murders he did commit. From that point onward, Tupolski is still pushing to execute Katurian and Ariel loses all of his nerve. It ends on a technicality, that Katurian confessed to murders he didn't commit, and the agreement was that they would save his legacy if he confessed truthfully, so they are "entirely within [their] rights to burn all of Mr. Katurian's work".
  • Karel Čapek, a moral relativist, intended this with R.U.R., writing in a commentary on the play, "General director Domin tries to prove that technical developments liberate man from heavy physical labor, and he is right. Alquist believes on the contrary that technical developments demoralize man, and I think that he is right too. Busman thinks that only industrialism is capable of meeting modern needs; he is right. Helena instinctively fears all this human machinery, and she is quite right. And finally, the Robots themselves revolt against all these idealisms, and it seems that they are right as well."

    Visual Novels 
  • ChuSinGura 46+1 features the stories of the Ako Ronin and their plot to assassinate Kira, the man they deem responsible for the death of their master. However, as former samurai they have no qualms about killing (considered an everyday occurrence for warriors in feudal Japan) and they were split into different factions of diverging interests at first, while the retainers of Kira only do their job of protecting their master, and consider the ronin to be violent people obssessed by revenge.

Alternative Title(s): Grey And Grey Morality, Gray And Gray Morality, Gray And Grey Morality