Being a good and honorable person is anything but easy; it requires personal sacrifice that most normal people aren't willing to make, either out of self-interest, self-preservation, selfishness or any other number of reasons.
Heroes who abide by this trope more often than not act in a manner that, although morally sound and honorable, is far from the most practical solution. Quite often this kind of decent, chivalrous behavior will come at a great cost to the hero's happiness, kill them outright, or similarly leave them a destroyed human being. A villain aware of such a gallant hero is bound to use Flaw Exploitation against them as well.
Characters who adhere to this trope are generally more committed to their code of ethics than to their own self-preservation. They believe in a pre-defined set of rules which universally apply, and will not break them, even if their own death results from adhering to them in one particular instance. For them, acting dishonorably is a Fate Worse than Death.
In stories on the idealistic end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism, the more the insistence of honorable behavior seems impractical, or even insane, the greater the chance that it becomes the thing that turns a hopeless situation into victory. In stories on the cynical end, however, this trope will overlap with Too Dumb to Live.
An especially poignant situation is Turn the Other Cheek. Often, and perhaps running counter to the theme of honor besting all, the hero has to be aided by Big Damn Villains, who are able to cross that final line that their integrity would not allow.
When done well and/or consistently, such acts of decency fan the flames of idealism in the viewers' hearts; they make them cheer even harder for the hero and inspire a desire to be just as pure and honorable. When done poorly, the term "Lawful Stupid" comes to mind, as does Martyr Without a Cause.
This trope is also subject to some degree of Values Dissonance, as some actions will be seen as both honorable and reasonable to a society with a certain set of beliefs. For instance, a society which believes in an afterlife ruled by a Higher Power that judges according to a rigid code of morality would see the "honorable" choice as being also "reasonable" by virtue of the fact that the person making it is sacrificing a temporary advantage in this life for a permanent one in the life to come. As another example, a man may be challenged to a duel over something stupid, but if he lives in an honor society where his peers will refuse to do business with him, not let their daughters marry his sons, etc. if he refuses to defend his honor, then he may feel like he has to do it even if he doesn't care about honor for its own sake.
Often features in I Gave My Word, In Its Hour of Need, Rash Promise, Rebellious Rebel. A trait of the Proud Warrior Race Guy, especially if the culture is based on Samurai or Spartans. What You Are in the Dark always reveals the same character as when they are seen. When a character does this to the point that it angers their more corrupt superiors, expect them to become The Last DJ. The McCoy is the personification of this trope. More Hero Than Thou disputes are sometimes this, when only one character is really suitable for the sacrifice. Can lead to the hero being prone to fall to things like the False Innocence Trick. See also Victorious Loser and Small Steps Hero.
Shoot the Dog is this trope's opposite. It can even be named "Reason Before Honor". Usually not a trait of a Combat Pragmatist due to their dirty approach to fighting often being seen as dishonorable.
Compare/contrast with Incorruptible Pure Pureness, Good Is Old-Fashioned, The Fettered, Martyrdom Culture, Revenge Before Reason, Insists on Being Suspected, and Noble Demon (the Evil Counterpart). Contrast Combat Pragmatist, No-Nonsense Nemesis, and Blind Obedience.
If they are lucky, they may be Saved From Their Own Honor.
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- Big Hero 6:
- Wasabi insists on using his turn signals and stopping at red lights (on an empty street), even when his car is being chased by a supervillain trying to kill everyone. Annoyed, GoGo takes the wheel and does some crazy maneuvers to escape.
- Tadashi going back in the fire to save Callaghan, proclaiming "someone has to help". While it is a brave and noble thing to do, Tadashi does this on one person's word and doesn't consider it's a job better left to the firefighters, or his younger brother might follow him inside (and Hiro tries to do just that, only to be stopped because the fire explodes and propels him back). Later, it's revealed Callaghan did survive, making Tadashi's sacrifice all for nothing. Callaghan points out Tadashi did something stupid, but phrasing it as "that was HIS mistake!" was not only a major dick move but pissed off Hiro to murderous levels. That's not to say that he was wrong to jump in despite the danger. After all, this sense of righteousness is why so many people looked up to him, especially Hiro.
- Hellboy Animated Sword of Storms: The daimyo, rather than relieved the demons were vanquished, is angered for the samurai under his employ defeated them after he promised her life in exchange for their mercy. His anger was enough that he had the warrior cursed into stone and took his own daughter's life. At the end of the film, when his ghost continues to resent them, Hellboy steps in and tells him to "use his head" because his continued refusal to go back on his word will make sure none of their spirits will find peace, closing with how he'll "never win". That last part is what causes him to finally let go.
- In The Peanuts Movie, this (combined with his perpetual streak of bad luck) is what routinely interferes with Charlie Brown's efforts to get The Little Red-haired Girl to notice him. He had a top-notch talent show magic act, but sacrificed it to save his sister's rodeo routine. He is partnered with The Little Red-haired Girl for a book report while she's out of town, and instead of simply asking the teacher for an extension, he picked the most difficult book he can find, wrote the whole report in a weekend, and apparently did a really good job, only for it to be destroyed by Linus's runaway toy plane right in front of her.. He got a perfect score on the standardized test, only to learn at the award assembly that he was accidentally given credit for Peppermint Patty's test, and corrects the mistake while on stage. Ironically, his unfailing morality is what The Little Red-haired Girl likes about him.
- In the Disney adaptation of Peter Pan having given his word of honor to not fly in his final duel with Captain Hook, Peter doggedly refuses to do so even when Hook proves to be the superior swordsman, having forced him to the corner of a mast leading to a fall that can kill him.
- In Pinocchio, when Pinocchio is led astray by Honest John and Gideon, Jiminy thinks about running over to tell Gepetto about it, but then decides to go after Pinocchio himself because "that would be snitching".
- As arguably Priam should have given Paris and Helen (who after all endangered their people for their personal pleasure) to the Greeks with his thanks, thus saving a whole lot of trouble, one could say that The Iliad is an example of this.
- Arthurian Legend:
- Where King Arthur chooses not to change the law about burning adulterous wives after Guinevere's affair with Lancelot is revealed. He is not (particularly) jealous of them. He loves Guinevere, he loves Lancelot, he is the king and the law is barbarous, but no, he will not change it, he will keep it for some vague noble reason which is never sufficiently explained.
- In all the King Arthur stories, Arthur is just Lawful Stupid. Now there is a good reason why he doesn't just ignore the law, because he is trying to get this new concept of "Rule of Law" to be adopted. But Honor Before Reason is at work here, as he could just pardon Guinevere and Lancelot, as he is the king. And should he actually use some compassion, he could then get the law amended so future cases of adultery don't involve the death penalty.
- The death penalty isn't for adultery — it's for treason, which both Lancelot and Guinevere have committed by betraying the King's trust. Whatever his personal feelings, he can't afford to change the law, for fear of giving other, more serious traitors a loophole.
- It's also been theorised that Arthur actually thought this through, and arranged for Guinevere's public execution on the assumption that Lancelot would rescue her — resulting in the two of them alive, together and out of his jurisdiction. It almost worked, as well.
- All of the above are modern interpretations of Arthur's behavior. In the old Romances he is seriously pissed and more than happy that his wife and her lover should die. One can scarcely blame him. Not only have they humiliated him before the entire kingdom but he has consistently defended them from accusations that are now proved true.
- Norse Mythology:
- The Aesir not killing Fenrisulfr and Jormungandr when they were small. Then again, the Norse did love their inevitable doom as thematic material...
- In a strange way, also what they actually DID do to them. Just because a prophecy said so, they kidnapped and imprisoned some weird but currently harmless magical animals, causing them to actually have a reason to want to kill the gods when they inevitably escaped.
- Weird variant with Loki, not particularly known for his sense of honor, who in two different myths is caught and coerced by a giant (Thiazi in one, Geirrod in the other) into promising to lure someone into a trap (Idunn and Thor, respectively). Afterward he goes ahead with it even when he's out of actual danger and it's sure to get the other Aesir angry with him. Myths Retold speculated that Geirrod had compromising pictures.
- Japanese Mythology:
- This is pretty much the best way to defeat a kappa (a Japanese water imp that resembles a monkey with webbed hands and feet): the source of the kappa's strength is the water-filled depression on its head. Bowing to a kappa will make him bow back, and cause the water to run out, rendering him helpless.
- A lot of Japanese monsters are like this. There's a particular woman ghost with a slit face who will approach you and ask you if she is pretty. Answering honestly will make her kill you out of anger. Lying about it will also make her kill you. However, one way to escape is by saying that you are terribly sorry, but you have an appointment that you must keep and do not have time to talk. She will apologize for holding you up and let you go.
- More folklore than mythology, but supposedly Dick Turpin took advantage of this in his victims by forcing them to swear not to turn him in or testify against him, which they actually stood by.
- This is basically how The Devil ends up defeated by mere mortals in many tales, especially in American folklore; he's the source of all evil, a conniving trickster and lies easier than he breathes, but if he makes a deal then he will follow it to the letter, even if he has the metaphysical power to just yank your soul out on principle and laugh all the way back to hell. So long as the deal (or resultant challenge of it) is not worded too ambiguously, anyway.
- Case in point: A poor man with lots and lots of debts with no way to repay made a Deal with the Devil, in that, the Devil would collect the man's soul once the Devil pays off all of the man's debts. The sorcerer Francis Bacon then pointed out that, according to the contract, the Devil could only collect the man's soul once all of the man's debts were paid. And so long as the man remained in debt to the Devil, the Devil could never take his soul.
- There was a similar story about when the Devil came to take the man's soul, he showed the Devil his Certificate of Baptism, showing that there was a previous lien on the property, which takes precedence. As soon as the man's debt to God was paid off, the Devil can take the rest.
- Tempered Steel from Fallout Is Dragons will always, always, always try to talk others into doing the right thing. Even a pissed off dragon who is currently preparing its breath weapon.
- Neil Sinclair of Survival of the Fittest fits this trope. The primary example of such behaviour is trusting Dominica Sharpiro by offering her a place in his Pro escape group, despite knowing, for certain that she earlier killed another group member who became separated from the others.
- In Camelot, this is the fork Arthur finds himself caught on when Guinevere is caught with Lancelot. As Mordred says: "Let her die, your life is over; let her live, your life's a fraud. Which will it be — kill the queen or kill the law?"
- Hamilton : Duels in general, but especially the three that happen onstage during Hamilton are one hundred percent unreasonable. No one actually thinks they're a good idea, but everyone has to do them. Truth in Television, at least for that time.
- Features prominently in Victor Hugo's play Hernani and its opera adaptation, Ernani—a rather extreme case of I Gave My Word.
- Arguably, this is the tragic flaw of Brutus in Julius Caesar — he doesn't want to accept that the people around him are not as idealistic and honorable as he is. Doing the honorable thing gets him in trouble when he spares Mark Antony and allows him to speak at Caesar's funeral, allowing Antony the chance to turn the opinion of the Roman public against Brutus with the famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech.
- Played straight and then deconstructed in Verdi's opera La Forza Del Destino. Don Carlo di Vargas at first refuses to open the potentially dying Don Alvaro's secret letters despite having a reasonable suspicion that Alvaro is the man who seduced his sister and killed his father because he had sworn not to... but then realises that he technically didn't give his word that he wouldn't look at a portrait (without a seal) that he finds amongst Alvaro's things.
- This is the central theme of A Man for All Seasons - Thomas More could easily save himself, but that would come at the cost of his integrity, something he is not willing to give.
- This is the entire point of the plot of The Pirates of Penzance. In addition to the do-nothing-ness and ethics of the pirates, Frederic swears himself to killing all of his friends once his indenture is over because piracy is wrong. He interrupts the Major General's daughters stripping on the beach due to uh, honor. And when the Pirate King and Ruth reveal that due to his birthday, he's going to be indentured until 1940, they don't even try to enforce it on him — "we leave it to your honor."
- Hell, it's right there the subtitle -- "The Slave of Duty"
- Stripping? They intend to paddle in the water. So — take their shoes and socks off. Probably pull up their skirts a little, too. Then, he is a slave to duty.
- But—bare ankles! Scandalous!
- At the end the pirates themselves surrender when called upon to do so in Queen Victoria's name.
- In Borodin's opera Prince Igor (although not the epic poem upon which it is based), Igor first reacts with anger when Ovlur suggests that he flee his captivity in Khan Konchak's camp because as a Prince it would dishonour him to do so, and then refuses to exchange his word that he won't attack Konchak for his freedom because he doesn't want to then go back on his word. However, this does mean that Konchak comes to view him as even more of a Worthy Opponent than he already did.
- Westeros: An American Musical: In a Decadent Court setting, Eddard Stark discovers his foster father was killed after discovering that none of King Robert's children are actually his, meaning that one of Robert's brothers is his actual heir. Eddard's reaction to the information is to arrange for Robert's brother to take the throne upon Robert's death, and he gets beheaded for betrayal. If Eddard had taken a I'll Pretend I Didn't Hear That approach to the information, he'd be still alive and there wouldn't have been a Succession Crisis (or at least much less of one).
- Saber in Fate/stay night and Fate/Zero has a pretty bad case of this. She knows her decisions are going to screw her over yet feels bound by her honor and rules of fair play. As an example in FSN, she charges the temple single-handed after everyone agrees it's suicide to do so, is commanded not to go and is perfectly aware that at best she will be severely wounded. In FZ, she lets Lancer go assuming that he's going to kill her Master Kiritsugu and therefore remove her from the war. Why? One, she doesn't like Kiritsugu and two, Lancer just helped her out. He only lives because Lancer lives by the same rules. Naturally, in Fate/stay night, she ends up the Servant of another person who epitomizes this trope, Shirou.
- Given that it's a Visual Novel about The Shinsengumi and the fall of the shogunate, this trope runs rampant throughout most of Hakuouki. Saito and Hijikata's routes in particular are full to the brim with it, both on their own parts and on the parts of Kondou and the subordinates they've inspired to follow them; they are dedicated swordsmen with deeply-held beliefs about what it means to be a warrior, in an age in which swords are quickly becoming obsolete in favor of guns and Western tactics. Their senses of honor also mean that, nearly to a man, the Shinsengumi captains insist on keeping Chizuru with them and protecting her even as they face losing battle after losing battle and everything falls apart around them; whenever it's so much as suggested that it would be better for Chizuru to leave rather than have them risk death to defend her, they bridle at the suggestion that they're not capable of protecting her.
- In Soryu Oh's route of Kissed by the Baddest Bidder, Soryu is set for an Arranged Marriage to the daughter of a Triad boss - a marriage which would consolidate their two gangs into a powerful organization which he would be next in line to take over — but declines at the last minute. In doing so, he offends the girl's father and causes him to lose face to the point that the only way for Soryu's gang to smooth things over is to hand Soryu over to be executed. As Soryu is no doubt fully aware of the likely consequences of his decision, his chosen course of action benefits absolutely no one, but he is willing to be executed rather than marry a woman he doesn't love and who doesn't love him when he knows that what he really wants is to be with the protagonist.
- Sasami Sasasegawa from Little Busters! is given the chance to rat out the main characters early on in Rin's route for using the sports grounds to practice even though they aren't a real club, and have been hogging the field and stealing practice time from official clubs like the girls' softball club that she's a member of. Instead, she keeps quiet about the main characters' actions. When Riki asks her why she kept quiet about them, she says it's because Rin beat her in their duel from the common route, and she responds by saying that she'll take the field back from the Little Busters by beating Rin in a rematch, rather than ratting them out.
- Watase Kasasagi in Root Double: Before Crime * After Days constantly follows this after getting amnesia. Prior to getting it, he's described as assessing every dangerous situation and acting accordingly, which is why his complete 180 baffles his rescue squad co-workers. This leads to plenty of bad ends...half of the time. However, plenty of bad ends have him still apply this shortly after making rational decisions because of his inability to not follow this, with most of the other ones being that the universe is out to get him for using his brain.
- Actually Invoked in DEATH BATTLE! as an argument against Goku in "Goku vs Superman". Many Dragon Ball Z characters, Goku included, have a habit of demanding a fair fight even against an obviously superior opponent. Hence, even if Goku managed to figure out Superman's weaknesses to kryptonite and exposure to a red star, he would refuse to exploit them.
- Krusk from Puffin Forest's Curse of Strahd story has an interesting problem with this. He's a paladin, which means he gets a lot of advantages when fighting The Undead, like most of Strahd's servants are. The one he considers his nemesis, however, is Rahadin, Strahd's very much living chamberlain.
- In Red vs. Blue, Sarge refuses to use sniper rifles and other long-distance weapons other than regular guns, as he believes the only way to kill someone is up close and personal. He admits that he has no problem with using a nuke on an enemy because of Rule of Cool.
- In Sherwood Forest, Will follows Robin to the castle and rushes into battle to save him. This would be very noble if not for the fact that he's a terrible swordfighter and basically just manages to kill a guy through sheer dumb luck. He also got lucky in that his appearance made the Sheriff's guards scatter; if they'd stuck around long enough to realize he was just flailing wildly with a sword, they probably would have killed him.
- The Nostalgia Critic is big on this one, protecting friends and children to the most extreme degree even though he knows full well it'll get himself hurt.
- Pwnage: Kyle lampshades this in their Totally Accurate Battle Simulator Gameplay when the last soldier of the army Kyle is fighting runs to his army alone.
Damian: He ran headfirst into death. That makes him a man.Kyle: That makes him a fucking idiot.