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Moral Pragmatist

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"I surrender to you because if this so-called plan of yours succeeds, then you will certainly be the one who's right. But that is as far as it goes, I assure you. [...] If you make even the slightest of blunders, then I will reactivate [the evil plan] immediately."
Fate Averruncus, Negima! Magister Negi Magi

Sometimes doing bad is, well, bad. Not just immoral or unethical, but flat-out impractical.

A Moral Pragmatist character starts out doing something wrong because they believe it's the most practical way to achieve their ultimate goal. In the end, though, they ally with the side of good because it's more efficient.

A Moral Pragmatist's goal isn't what we'd call "evil" — in fact, some cases can be downright good. However, they've been using evil or unethical means to achieve it. One of the good guys realizes this and points out that if they want to be rich, why not just do things legally? Or if they want to kill the Villain with Good Publicity that murdered their parents, hurting innocents will only improve the villain's PR and damage their own. Or, why would they try protecting their village using The Dark Side when The Dark Side Will Make You Forget, and they'd probably wind up killing the people they're trying to protect anyway? When presented with this information, the other party switches sides because they were simply wrong.

However, that doesn't automatically mean that they've changed. Sometimes, they still want to achieve the same goals, and they'll gladly go back to the bad side if yet another means presents itself. Where this trope differs from Pragmatic Villainy is that the pragmatic villain still has an ultimately sinister goal, but doing good helps them achieve it. As mentioned before, the goal for this character isn't really bad — they just did bad things to realize it.

A character who follows this trope may eventually make a full Face turn in the future if they find that Good Feels Good. A Fetishized Abuser may qualify if the only reason they care about their lover is because of the pleasure/attention they receive.

In Real Life, this is often how psychologists and sociologists try to "reform" psychopaths/sociopaths. Since they only care about themselves (and we do mean ONLY themselves) and are incapable of feeling sympathy or empathy for other people, the only way to make them play nice with others is by showing how they benefit from it, or how the negative consequences will affect them. A sociopath might not care that killing somebody will make their loved ones feel bad, but the sociopath would definitely care if they knew that it would get them thrown in jail, arrested, or shanked in a back alley as a target of revenge.

Compare and/or contrast:


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Bleach, it's revealed that the first Kenpachi, Unohana, was originally Soul Society's most notorious criminal. She switched sides simply because there'd be a better chance of finding a Worthy Opponent as a member of the Gotei 13.
  • Cells at Work: Bacteria!: The various groups of Opportunistic Bacteria fall squarely under this trope, as they have no real interest in the morality or motives of either the "good" or "bad" bacteria. Interestingly, neither the good nor the bad bacteria are under any illusions that the opportunists are their friends, nor do the opportunists try to hide their single motive: they will always side with whoever is winning because they don't want to die.
  • A Certain Scientific Railgun: Harumi Kiyama is a researcher that serves as the Arc Villain of Railgun's first arc. She created the "Level-Upper" as a drug to lure unsuspecting but desperate Espers into using it to increase their powers, only for them to fall into a coma afterward. However, she doesn't do this out of malice; her ultimate goal is to save a group of children she views as her precious students, and even created a way to reverse the process after she achieved her goal. That said, she also states that if the reversal process doesn't work, she still wouldn't stop her plans. Even after she's defeated, she tells Misaka that though her original plan was flawed and failed, she still won't hesitate to use another unsavory method to achieve the same ends. This later comes back to bite her, because when Misaka finds out Kiyama is involved in another shady experiment, she turns the children over to Therestina, who later reveals herself as the true Big Bad behind the children's predicament in the first place.
  • In very late chapters of Naruto, Sasuke pulls a Big Damn Heroes moment and decides to enter the Fourth Shinobi World War to protect his hometown Konoha. He also states that he wants to become his village's head ninja. His reasoning, however, is that this is simply the best way to prevent the screw-ups done by previous village leaders from happening again.
  • Negima! Magister Negi Magi eventually has Negi defeat Fate, a Well-Intentioned Extremist, by coming up with an alternate way of achieving his goals which is riskier but doesn't require any loss of life (and then beating on him until he sits down long enough to listen to it). In exchange, Negi agrees to help Fate's original plan if the new one doesn't work out, saying that he'll be glad to help but only if it's truly the only option.

    Comic Books 
  • This is how Avengers Academy tries to reform the teenage would-be supervillains. They try to show the kids that doing evil and supervillainy will only hurt themselves and their goals in the long run, while heroism or playing within the law can be lucrative. It sticks with some, but not so much for others.
  • This is canonically the reason why the British comic book character The Spider fights crime. As a bored rich man, he first became a cat-burglar, then found that was too easy, so he returned everything he'd stolen and became a crime-fighter instead. He sticks with it simply because it provides him with the excitement in life that he'd wanted.
  • Batman: When portrayed as a Well-Intentioned Extremist, Poison Ivy typically sides with whomever is most willing/able to help her goals to protect endangered plant and animal life from human neglect and greed. In her 2016 series, she tries to reform and return to being a scientist since the academic community is more than willing to throw money and resources at her project because of the huge potential it possesses.
  • In Thunderbolts, some of the team (villains disguised as heroes) find that doing heroic acts gives them what they always wanted — such as fortune and fame. They start being seduced by the power of good.
  • In the Marvel Universe Alternate Timeline of Earth-1191, Doctor Doom has become old and unsound in mind and body. He chooses to help the heroes simply because it allows him to stretch his still-impeccable intellect and retain mental lucidity for greater periods of time. He makes it clear, however, that if he ever became healthy again, he'd probably go back to his old ways.
  • The Transformers: Till All Are One: Starscream's IDW characterization often revolves around this. He's become the leader of Cybertron and achieved his goals for conquest, but he still has a job to do whether he likes it or not. As unethical as he can be (the False Flag Operation on Caminus being a stand-out example), it's not in Starscream's best interest to drive the planet to ruin and he does try his best when faced with all of the factional infighting and outside threats. The series even goes to certain lengths to show that Starscream isn't always in the wrong and certain actions, like him being against Optimus's colonial expansion, do come from a moral place rather than a purely selfish one.
    • Similarly, in The Transformers: Optimus Prime, Soundwave is swayed to Optimus Prime's side when he happens to scan several humans' minds and realizes they have similar thought processes to Cybertronians (due to Fantastic Racism, the Decepticons basically treated any organics as less-than-germs). Due to Optimus' desire to have human, Autobot, and Decepticon stand together as equals, and since Soundwave has always maintained that the original goal of the Decepticons was equality, he has since become one of Optimus' most reliable allies. That said, he is far less patient with the various human plots that have cropped up but has generally let Optimus deal with them his own way.
  • X-Men: This trope is the entire reason that Magneto seems to go through the Heel–Face Revolving Door, as he explains to a resurrected Joseph (his clone) in Magneto: Not a Hero. He doesn't, really; it's just that the most effective method to achieve his goals keeps changing with the status quo. His initial Heel–Face Turn was because he realized that the damage to mutantkind's image from the most famous mutant in the world being an international terrorist and avowed anti-human racist was greater than anything he was actually achieving.
    "What none of you will ever understand is that there are no sides. No heroes or villains. There is just what I want, and how I'll get it."

    Fan Works 
  • A Brighter Dark: Garon. He would be perfectly happy if Corrin managed to peacefully talk down the Ice Tribe rebellion, but makes it clear in no uncertain terms that the rebellion will end one way or another.
  • The Masks We Wear (Teen Titans): John Grayson as Slade believes there's no side but his. Whether he plays the Teen Titans villain or as a "hero" going against The Court of Owls.
  • A Rabbit Among Wolves: Upon seeing that they have no chance of winning, Mercury promptly turns on Cinder and Emerald, confessing everything in order to get a reduced sentence for themselves.
  • Whirlpools Among The Eddies: Danzo tends to make decisions based upon what personally benefits him first and foremost. He has Karin handled carefully after deciding that she's more useful to him alive than dead, and wants Orochimaru killed not because of his many crimes against humanity, but because his former ally has become a liability to him.

  • From Tearmoon Empire is its protagonist Mia Luna Tearmoon. In her original life, she was a Royal Brat who neglected the problems the Tearmoon empire was struggling with, which included a famine and a plague. This leads to a revolution and her eventual death by guillotine. She ends up experiencing Mental Time Travel and goes back eight years before her execution, before those problems get out of hand. Knowing how things will end for her, she sets out to fix the issues that triggered the revolution in the first place. It is made clear through her thoughts and the Lemony Narrator that she is Secretly Selfish, and only trying to fix these problems to save her own skin. However, everyone around her interprets her actions as altruistic, leading to her gaining the reputation of a saint who is Wise Beyond Her Years.
  • John Rumford in Victoria. When he takes effective command of an antigovernmental insurgency in Cascadia that ruthlessly tortures and murders the enemy and gives no quarter, he orders that they should start accepting surrenders where possible and treat prisoners at least reasonably well. Rumford, a retired career USMC officer, knows that this is the smart as well as the decent thing to do, since an enemy with his back to the wall will fight to the last breath, thereby making the fight that much harder for everyone.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Zack Addy in the Bones Season 3 finale, after being revealed to be the Gormogon's Apprentice. He justifies his actions, arguing that the strategy of the killer is the logical means to achieving a better society. Dr. Brennan points out a single flaw in his logic and he immediately abandons team evil and gives the good guys everything they need to defeat his former mentor.
  • In the Season 6 episode "He Said, She Said" of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Rosa Diaz exhibits this trait. The main plot of the episode revolves around a woman named Keri who broke her boss's penis when she hit him in the groin with a golf club, claiming that he attempted to sexually assault her. The financial firm she works for tries to offer her two million dollars in hush money, which Amy convinces her to not take and to instead press charges against her boss because she doesn't want him to go free. Rosa, however, points out that they have no actual evidence that the attempted assault took place, that the entire firm is standing behind Keri's boss, and that if they go through with this, Keri may very well end up having her reputation destroyed, lose her job, and her boss will just go free anyway; and if she takes the deal, she'll at least get two million dollars and get to keep her job with her reputation intact.
    • In the same episode, Keri's coworker "Beefer" tried to advance his career by joining the firm's attempt to cover for the boss. He later realizes that if his boss goes to prison, he can move up the ladder and secretly gives Amy the evidence she needs to arrest him. At the end of the episode, Amy remarks that Beefer was the only real winner in the story.
  • Farscape: Scorpius joins the crew of Moya in the final season not because of any particular commitment to their cause (as they themselves would admit, they don't have one) or out of any kind of fellowship, but because playing nice with Crichton and the others is the most effective way to achieve his goals of defeating the Scarrans. When he spots an opportunity, he immediately reverts to type and manipulates them into a situation where Crichton has to give him what he wants.
  • Melanie Cavill from Snowpiercer is a particularly fine example. For all the horrors she enforces, her goal is genuinely to keep the last remains of humankind safe for as long as possible. When presented with the opportunity, she will make concessions towards a fairer system (such as taking First Class passenger LJ Folger's murder trial seriously, handing the train over to Layton, or trying to find out if it's possible to safely leave the train at all), but will as quickly backpedal if things get out of hand (like commuting LJ's sentence to keep her quiet, or revealing the truth about the uncertainty of New Eden rather than risking taking the train on a bad stretch of tracks). If conflict arises and she's not in a position of power, she'll align herself with whichever part will make the least damage (namely Layton over the Folgers first and Wilford then), but will change her allegiances if her chosen party will prove too risky (like when she made an uneasy alliance with Wilford to wrestle control away from Layton and avoid the trip to New Eden). Ultimately, she will try the least evil route, but only so far as it complies with her idea of keeping humankind safe.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: In the episode "The Quickening", Bashir and Dax encounter a doctor on a planet ravaged by a plague. Many have tried and failed to cure the plague, and the doctor has given up hope of a cure and provides euthanasia because it's the only kindness he thinks is possible. This infuriates Bashir, who risks everything to work on a vaccine. As soon as hard evidence surfaces that the vaccine works, the doctor drops his arguments about euthanasia and helps Bashir distribute the vaccine.
  • Peter Hale in Teen Wolf is somewhere between this and Pragmatic Villainy. He's more than willing to murder, manipulate, and harm others to achieve his goals... until he loses his position as Alpha Werewolf and the Big Bads of season 2 and 3 effectively force him to ally with the heroes who brought him down and killed him; though he doesn't hold a grudge. While he's still the Token Evil Teammate, he's not bloodthirsty and actually rather prudent.

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • In Advance Wars: Dual Strike, a driving reason for Hawke teaming up with the Allies to defeat Black Hole after his defection isn't to get revenge for them pulling a You Have Outlived Your Usefulness on him nor because he believes it's wrong that their new schemes are reducing the planet to a desert by draining its life force, but because he can't see the point in ruling over a barren wasteland. If he's going to spend the time and resources it'll take to conquer the world, he wants that world to be in good condition.
    Hawke: I'm more curious about what you think of our new Black Hole Army, Lash.
    Lash: It's as evil as ever, isn't it? World domination and all that.
    Hawke: We've drained so much of the planet's energy that it's turning into a wasteland. What's the point? Is this prize worth dying for? Is this a noble end?
  • Dawn of War:
    • In Winter Assault, the Imperial Guard and Eldar work to keep the Titan out of Chaos' hands, though the first to the gate leaves the other to be torn apart. The orks and Chaos forces have an evil version where the mass landings of the Imperial Guard causes Crull and Gorgutz to stop fighting, though they have no illusions that it's out of convenience and intend to kill the other as soon as possible.
    • In Retribution, the ork campaign is kicked off when Inquisitor Adrastia shoots down Bluddflagg's ship and hires him to take out Kyras, pointing out that if he ascends and destroys the entire sector, there'll be nothing left for the orks to fight and steal from.
    • Later still in Dawn of War III, the Blood Raven Chapter Master Gabriel and the Eldar Farseer Macha have scores to settle with each other from the very first game. Their goals are originally mutually exclusive (both want an ancient and powerful Eldar relic for their respective superiors), but they become nominal allies once it's clear that the Eldar commander thinks nothing of sacrificing his people and leaving their soul stones to rot. As Macha now wants to prevent her former commander from getting his hands on the relic, she lays off attacking the Blood Ravens. Likewise, Gabriel later agrees to follow her counsel, observing that the last time he ignored her, the resulting debacle almost wiped the Blood Ravens out completely.
  • Some characters in Dynasty Warriors work like this. For example, in DW7, Dian Wei works as hired muscle for some bandits because it's the best way to keep people under his care fed. Once Xiahou Dun bests him in a fistfight and Cao Cao hires him, he becomes a fervent Cao loyalist once he sees Cao runs his territories well and the common people are looked after well.
  • Mass Effect:
    • Urdnot Wrex is this way. His goal is to ensure the survival of his doomed species, the krogan. He has developed very pragmatic ideas to help the krogan recover from the genophage, but they're too proud and violent to listen to him. In the first game, when Saren finds a way to breed new krogan, he seriously considers betraying you, and you can only change his mind by either threatening to kill him or making him realize how stupid it would be to join Saren. In the third game, if he survived, Wrex refuses to help in the war against the Reapers unless you cure the genophage first, and if you sabotage said cure, he immediately withdraws all krogan support just so that humans will go extinct just like the krogan.
    • Likewise, Zaeed Massani. If you're playing a Paragon Shepard, the only way to complete his loyalty mission is to convince him that letting his hated archenemy get away is less important than focusing on the main mission. If you do, he'll agree to leave that behind him until the job's done. Then, in the third game, he still happens to be on the same side as Shepard because he's got a common enemy in Cerberus.
  • Pokémon Black 2 and White 2: Colress is like this. As a scientist working for Team Plasma, he wants to uncover the secret of how to bring out the ultimate potential in Pokémon. Ghetsis believes it's by treating Pokémon like tools and abusing their powers for all their worth. However, in his battles against the player, he notes that the player's Pokémon are more powerful and better fighters, and he starts pursuing the hypothesis that being friendly and caring toward Pokémon brings out greater power. As his research begins to show that this is true, he more or less abandons Team Plasma's ideals entirely.
  • Star Trek Online: Reman Resistance leader Obisek is introduced trying to acquire highly illegal thalaron weapons to use against the Tal Shiar to free his people from slavery. He's stopped by the Player Character and fights them briefly, before forming an alliance with them and giving up his most brutal methods. This lets him achieve his goal.
  • Xenoblade Chronicles X: Most alien races fall into this trope. Since virtually all of them have been press-ganged into joining the Ganglion, they leap at the chance to rebel once they realize that A) they're stranded on Mira and the Ganglion are without most of their reinforcements and B) humanity actually has a good chance of defeating the Ganglion and thus freeing them. The Orphe and the Wrothians, in particular, make it clear that their alliance with humans are strictly a tool for survival (the Wrothian prince even flat out tells you that if there ever comes a time that Wrothian interests oppose human ones, he will void the truce immediately), but both species come to respect humanity in the meantime.

    Western Animation 
  • Captain Planet and the Planeteers: The Planeteers are able to reform the villain Sly Sludge this way. His villainy was the result of his greed and laziness leading him to dump garbage in ecologically sensitive locations, but after being told there's more money in green waste management, he changes his ways for good.
  • This was ultimately the fate of The Dazzlings in the EQUESTRIA GIRLS series. Actually monstrous sirens from Equestria who spread a Hate Plague to feed off of the negative emotions who were trapped in human form in the human world, they at first attempted to conquer that world when Equestrian magic was introduced to it. After their defeat and the loss of their gems, the sources of their power, they simply went straight and put their admittedly great musical talents to use to become a band. Their interactions with Sunset Shimmer in Sunset's Backstage Pass make it very clear they certainly haven't changed at heart, but simply know they have no way of being villains at this point and have made do with what they still have:
    Adagio Dazzle: The song's about being stuck in this miserable human world with no magic or hope of returning to Equestria. We made the mistake of using our powers to manipulate Canterlot High School, and we've paid the price for it with our magic.
    Sonata Dusk: Unless you count the magic of vocal processing.
    Adagio Dazzle: Which I don't! What I'm saying is we already get a do-over with every new day. It's called living life.
    Sonata Dusk: You should try it sometime.
  • In Young Justice (2010), when Lex Luthor is revealed as the arbitrator of the peace talks between North and South Rhelasia, Red Arrow calls him out for having an ulterior motive as the man has been profiting greatly off the war by selling weapons to both sides. Lex admits he does have an ulterior motive: that he can profit more off of the two countries if they are united.
    Lex: War income is pocket change compared to the billions to be made investing in a peaceful, united Rhelasia. And isn't it better to have peace even if that scoundrel Lex Luthor profits from it?