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Moral Event Horizon

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Once he crosses that red line, there's no turning back.

"Tarkin, if ever there was a shred of humanity in you or these twisted creatures of yours, it's dead now. You're at war with life itself."
Princess Leia Organa (after Grand Moff Tarkin wipes out Alderaan), Star Wars Radio Dramas
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Named for the boundary around a black hole from which there is no escape once crossed, this trope uses the black hole as a metaphor for evil; the Moral Event Horizon refers to the first evil deed to prove a particular character to be irredeemably evil.

Note the word irredeemably. It is a demonstration of permanent evil; as in, the first evil deed by a character which tells us that they will always be a bad person. That moment where you know for sure that it is simply not possible for them to wash their hands to get rid of the damned spot of blood. The moment any Freudian Excuse they may have loses all meaning. And of course, many villains stay evil throughout, but we're talking "If you can find it in your soul to even consider forgiving this person, there's something freakishly wrong with you." Their existence is a blight on humanity. They. Are. Vile.

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While they may not have had a term such as this to define it, many authors clearly recognized it. Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land referred to it as being the result of an act that was "so bad, so black" that it was basically unforgivable. Meanwhile, multiple religions have the concept of "perdition," where those who have committed a truly unpardonable sin are irrevocably doomed to punishment in the afterlife.

Obviously, it follows from the definition that a character can't cross this boundary more than once. Crossing it implies going from redeemable to irredeemable, and that's it; the other way around contradicts the definition. Of course, that doesn't mean they'll always be getting worse. Sometimes a character who has crossed the horizon will invoke I've Come Too Far afterwards... but they have still crossed the line. Yet there are ways to stem the descent into a true monstrosity. Sometimes all that stands between man and monster is a Single Tear... or even a full-out weep. Perhaps a show of respect for the enemy. A Heel Realization that you've gone too far. Sometimes they become The Atoner. But the act has been committed, and they will never fully succeed...

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And since it's subjective, some characters will think you've crossed it, while others may be still prepared to believe in your possible redemption.

Just as with a real black hole, the closer you come to a Moral Event Horizon, the harder you must try to escape.

A Complete Monster lives on the other side of the Moral Event Horizon, but crossing the Moral Event Horizon does not automatically imply that the crosser is a Complete Monster. The character can just be a bad person (and maybe even somewhat sympathetic); the Moral Event Horizon is a black mark in their history that can never be forgiven. A character who performs an act that should make them irredeemable but somehow gets away with it is a Karma Houdini. Unless they realize it, feel horrible, and work their ass off to atone for that crossing. Then maybe it'll evolve into Forgiven, but Not Forgotten; that one crossing certainly will stay as a black mark, but they're working to be a better person. Such instances, however, are rare.

Sometimes, however, there is a positive usage of a Moral Event Horizon. If, in a work, a villain seems to be too ineffectual and pathetic to be a threat, yet the show wants to insist that it's a dangerous villain, letting the villain cross the Moral Event Horizon can be a good way to establish that villain's caliber, that they're meant to be opposed and taken seriously. In other words, it can save a supposed villain from being a failure of a villain.

When a hero crosses a Moral Event Horizon and it becomes questionable whether they can still be qualified as a hero, this is Designated Hero.

Compare with:

  • Abusive Parents: Characters who abuse their children often cross this.
  • And That's Terrible: When the writers feel the need to explicitly point out when this occurs.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: A race or group is treated, justifiably or not, as so innately evil that they're over the line by default.
  • Bad Boss: Characters who abuse their subordinates often cross this.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Characters who abuse animals often cross this.
  • Bait the Dog: A villain sets up a moment that endears him to the audience, only to commit a deed to show how utterly despicable they are.
  • Bullying the Disabled: Ostracizing or mocking someone's disability is a sick act.
  • Complete Monster: A character that's pure evil. Not everyone who crosses the Moral Event Horizon become this, but a Complete Monster has definitely crossed it.
  • Cop Killer: When a murderer demonstrates his lack of regard for morality by killing representatives of law and justice.
  • Crosses the Line Twice: When these actions are played for laughs.
  • A Deadly Affair: When an affair turns into a crime scene. Victim(s) can vary.
  • Defiled Forever: In a setting where Sex Is Evil and/or where Nature Adores a Virgin.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Some characters who lose all hope can be more likely to cross the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Dick Dastardly Stops to Cheat: Giving up an advantage just to hurt someone, while definitely stupid, petty, and pointless, can also be a Moral Event Horizon if it involves a truly heinous act due to the underlying thought process: they care less about winning and more about inflicting harm, and they're totally willing to throw away what was a guaranteed victory just to indulge in petty cruelty.
  • Dirty Coward: In some cases, characters who put their lives before others to the point that he doesn't care if others die or suffer are line-crossers.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Sometimes, the retribution is disproportionate enough that it causes the person who committed it to cross the Moral Event Horizon, and often it does.
  • Dog-Kicking Excuse: Deliberately targeting bad people just because it presents a good excuse for doing something heinous to them is still as crossing it because, at the end of the day, you really only cared about inflicting serious or fatal harm on someone and just needed a good excuse for doing it.
  • Domestic Abuse: Characters who abuse their families/spouses/lovers often cross this.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: Destroying an entire planet is a major Moral Event Horizon.
  • Evil Feels Good: Being on The Dark Side after a Face–Heel Turn makes a character feel good committing evil deeds.
  • Face–Heel Turn: A guy on the side of good turns bad and allies with a villain (or group of villains) and forever affiliated with same.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: Rewarding selfless acts of kindness with wanton cruelty can absolutely be a Moral Event Horizon.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Many Affably Evil characters can become this when they cross the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Final Solution: Genocide, the act of wiping out an entire people, is one of the most monstrous acts that a person or a society can commit, and is a serious crossing of the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Forced to Watch: Forcing someone to watch the torture or murder of those they care about is almost invariably a Moral Event Horizon.
  • For the Evulz: Many usually Kick the Dog for no reason than Evil Feels Good and to get a sick kick at others' expense.
  • Freudian Excuse: Villains are often the way they are because they were on the receiving end of someone crossing the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Sometimes a situation becomes so desperate that even heroes must do the previously unthinkable or forbidden.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: A Heel–Face Turn and/or an apology is attempted, but for whatever reason(s) is rejected; in other words, it's too little, too late.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: He who seeks revenge against the villains should be wary, not to get so influenced by them that he becomes a villain himself.
  • Honor-Related Abuse: Characters who abuse their families/friends in the name of honor often cross this.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: When a character does something irredeemably terrible in the name of the greater good (or, less favorably, believes that it was for the greater good) while being at least nominally aware of the gravity of their actions.
  • If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten: One is made to cross the line to prove their character.
  • Ignored Epiphany: A villain or morally gray character has a brief moment of realizing how bad their actions are, only to shrug it off a few moments later, knowing how far they've fallen.
  • I've Come Too Far: When a character recognizes (or believes) that he/she has crossed the MEH and knows that he/she doesn't have a chance of redemption anymore.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: A character skips over several progressively darker shades of gray and goes straight to the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Kangaroo Court: Deciding that the accused is guilty without any evidence can be a Moral Event Horizon.
  • Karmic Death: What the irredeemable character will usually face due to crossing the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Karmic Rape: A character may also face this if they've done something irredeemably awful, especially if that thing involved sex.
  • Kick the Dog: An act which serves no purpose other than to mark the character as evil, which frequently overlaps with this.
  • Kick the Morality Pet: If Kicking The Dog wasn't enough, the evil character hurting the ones they love cross it worse.
  • Kill the Poor: Killing those who are in poverty is a MEH.
  • Kinslaying Is a Special Kind of Evil: Murdering one's relatives in general is often considered a Moral Event Horizon.
    • Matricide: A character killing their own mother is considered to be heinous in most cases.
    • Offing the Offspring: Parents killing their children is considered a Moral Event Horizon.
    • Patricide: A character killing their own father is considered to be heinous most of the time.
    • Self-Made Orphan: A character killing their own parents is considered to be heinous most of the time.
    • Sibling Murder: A character killing their own sibling is considered to be heinous.
  • Knight Templar: One of the most frequent crossers of the MEH, as they're too deluded to realize that they're in the wrong or believe that the outcome will vindicate them.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The character will react with great remorse after he/she crosses the Moral Event Horizon.
  • No Place for Me There: When a character who has crossed the MEH or inevitably will is trying to create a better world, but does so knowing that there will be no place in that world for people who commit monstrous acts like them.
  • No Woman's Land: A race or group abuse women so they're over the line by default.
  • Obligatory War-Crime Scene: Soldiers crossing the line to show War Is Hell.
  • Omnicidal Maniac: Trying to kill EVERYTHING almost certainly puts one past the line.
  • Pædo Hunt: Sexual contact with a minor is treated as a Moral Event Horizon, as it combines Would Hurt a Child and Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil.
  • Punished for Sympathy: In a cultural sense, a character showing sympathy for someone who has crossed the MEH is considered just as bad as the line-crosser.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Rape is easily considered a major Moral Event Horizon.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Any one of those is crossing the line, doing them all at once on a large scale is an easy MEH.
  • Revenge by Proxy: Exacting revenge on someone innocent, especially if it's done in order to hurt someone connected to the person who the avenger wants revenge on, is treated as a Moral Event Horizon.
  • Redemption Rejection: A character rejecting an offer to redeem himself is proof that he isn't willing to turn back from the line he crossed.
  • Reformed, but Rejected: Frequently befalls those who crossed the MEH if they try to atone. This may or may not be reasonable depending on their pre and post MEH-crossing actions.
  • Rejected Apology: Sometimes, a character's actions cross the line to the point where he isn't forgiven for them no matter how apologetic he is.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: A character in the middle of one of these very well may do something that strikes beyond the pale.
  • Sadist: A character who enjoys the pain and suffering of others and enjoys inflicting as much of it as possible is a frequent line crosser.
  • Shamed by a Mob: A large group of characters will show extreme disgust towards the one crossing the MEH.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Slavery is considered a Moral Event Horizon. Applies first and foremost for slavedrivers who start it, and not always for those raised in a slavery-based society if they aren't cruel to the slaves.
  • Slowly Slipping Into Evil: One common slow approach to the Moral Event Horizon.
  • The Sociopath: One of the most frequent crossers of the MEH, as a complete Lack of Empathy, overarching egotism and grandiosity, ability to feign social cues to such an extent that it appears genuine to regulars, and willingness to escalate their depravity when they've grown bored with garden-variety cruelty are a lethal combination.
  • Start of Darkness: A flashback or prequel that shows where they crossed the line.
  • Stupid Evil: Characters who act like this tend to cross the MEH with alarming regularity, as the behavior is inherently pointless and purposeless and they also very frequently escalate their behavior when they've grown bored with garden-variety cruelty.
  • Suicide Dare: Telling someone to kill themselves is a heartless act to say the least, and becomes outright monstrous if the person should actually go through with it.
  • Suicide Is Shameful: Suicide is considered a Moral Event Horizon crossover by some cultures.
  • Tautological Templar: Even worse offenders at crossing the line than the Knight Templar because they believe everything they do is good, no matter how monstrous.
  • Team Killer: Killing one's own teammates is a reprehensible act.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: Deeming someone as evil without having done anything evil, and after getting fed up they decide to become evil or at least act the part. If mistreated and abused for no reason their persecutors have ironically crossed the Moral Event Horizon themselves. Their first unambiguously villainous act may well be their Moral Event Horizon.
  • This Is Unforgivable!: An in-universe belief that the Moral Event Horizon has been crossed. See also This Means War!.
  • Tragic Mistake: The line is accidentally crossed. May or may not be irredeemable depending on how they handle it.
  • Tragic Villain: A character believes they've crossed the Moral Event Horizon, and has nothing left to do but continue to be evil despite regretting it.
  • Treachery Is a Special Kind of Evil: When betraying someone is considered a Moral Event Horizon.
  • The Unfettered: Willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, even if it means crossing the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Victim Blaming: Blaming someone for the tragedies happened to him/her is heinous.
  • Video Game Cruelty Potential: Sometimes certain things the player can do will push their character over the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Where I Was Born and Razed: Destroying one's own homeland is a reprehensible act.
  • Would Harm a Senior: Hurting a senior citizen often crosses the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Would Hit a Girl: For a man, hurting an innocent woman may be considered a Moral Event Horizon.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Hurting a child often crosses the Moral Event Horizon.
  • You Monster!: Characters will get called this, indicating that they've severely crossed the line.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Cheating on one's spouse or significant other is considered unforgivable in-universe.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Bands of rebels (especially guerilla fighters) tend to be frequent crossers because in times of tyranny or occupation, you can't afford to not get your hands dirty, and the higher the stakes and the more powerful the opposition, the higher the chance of doing something truly heinous is. They may react to it with horror, resignation, or, far less favorably, by setting it as a benchmark for future actions.

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    Comic Strips 
  • Crankshaft. The September 2013 plot arc has Crankshaft get even surlier than usual because a new co-worker is challenging his reign of smug, curmudgeonly idiot incompetence; his response is to try to 'scare' her into letting him be the festering asshole using his hard life as an excuse to be the antisocial clod he was born to be... by trying to run her over with his school bus.

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