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 Bastard Boyfriend or Bastard Girlfriend 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" or control psychopaths and sociopaths. Since they only care about themselves (and only themselves), the only way to make them play nice with others is by showing how they benefit from it.
Tropes this can overlap with:
- Being Evil Sucks
- Cut Lex Luthor a Check
- Enemy Mine
- Good Feels Good
- Good Pays Better
- I Fight for the Strongest Side
- Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal
- Moral Sociopathy
- Necessarily Evil
- Not Quite the Right Thing
- Pragmatic Hero
- Stupid Evil
- Token Evil Teammate
- Villain's Dying Grace
- Villain Takes an Interest
- Well-Intentioned Extremist
- You Could Have Used Your Powers for Good
- 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.
- 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.
- Mahou Sensei Negima! 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 realises 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 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.
- This trope is the entire reason that Magneto seems to go through the Heel–Face Revolving Door. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 fightig, 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 (an Eldar Soul Jar) 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 fist fight 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.
- 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 Pokemon. Ghetsis believes it's by treating Pokemon like tools and abusing their powers for all their worth. However, in his battles against the player, he notes that the player's Pokemon are more powerful and better fighters, and he starts pursuing the hypothesis that being friendly and caring toward Pokemon brings out greater power. As his research begins to show that this is true, he more or less abandons Team Plasma's ideals entirely.
- 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.