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Morton's Fork

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"Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
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A character is presented two alternatives, A and B. If the character chooses A, then something bad happens. If they choose B, a similar or identical bad thing happens — but for a different reason. The Many Questions Fallacy is often a form of this, where a loaded question ("Have you stopped beating your wife lately?") precludes a "safe" answernote  (since, in this case, by denying to answer the question, you are essentially admitting that suspicions about you beating your wife are legitimate).

The name comes from the tax-collecting practices of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor under Henry VII. He reasoned that anyone who was living extravagantly was rich, and so could afford high taxes, whereas anyone who was living frugally had saved a lot, and so could afford high taxes. Bear in mind before you get too crazy that this was typically used to keep people well-known to be well-off anyways from trying to weasel their way out of paying; he wasn't exactly trying to collect from peasants in hovels. Instead, he was trying to get around a then-common excuse for not paying taxes (that is, not having any money to do so) by discounting the proofs used to support the excuse (actual profligacy and feigned poverty).note 

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This is often confused with Hobson's choice. Thomas Hobson — who lived about half a century after Morton — leased horses, and, having noticed that, given a real choice, his customers tended to pick the same horses over and over again, leaving them seriously over-used while leaving others almost completely unexercised, he had customers automatically assigned the one nearest the door rather than let them pick, so all the horses would be used and exercised equally. The customer's choice was "Take it (the horse assigned) or leave it (don't get any horse)." A Hobson's choice is a false choice because there's only one real option if you're in need of the thing being offered. A Morton's Fork is a false choice because both options have the same or equally undesirable results.

Compare Xanatos Gambit, where this is weaponized in a specific type of plan and often used by The Chessmaster. See also Sadistic Choice, which similarly forces characters to choose between two untenable choices, except that each leads to a different undesirable outcome. Characters often attempt to Take a Third Option in response, with varying degrees of success. They may instead pick one to Get It Over With. If the fork is deliberately placed into a test, this is Unwinnable Training Simulation.

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Contrast Sweet and Sour Grapes, wherein a good outcome occurs regardless of the choice made. Not to be confused with But Thou Must!, where you have only one choice forced upon you. Not interchangeable with Catch-22 Dilemma, where the problem is circular — to achieve one thing you must first do or acquire something else, but to do or acquire that you must have the first thing.

Remember, it's only a Morton's Fork if both choices lead to basically the same outcome. It isn't enough just to be given a choice between two bad options. If you're offered a choice between a bad option and a worse one, that's probably The Easy Way or the Hard Way. If the choice is deceptive—and the option that seems less bad is actually worse—that's The Window or the Stairs. Subtrope of Failure Is the Only Option.


Examples:

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    Comic Books 
  • Two-Face:
    • He once declared that if his coin comes scarred side up he'll destroy half the city; if it comes clean side up, he'll save half the city. The coin comes clean side up ... and Two-Face promptly prepares to destroy the other half of the city.
    • Two-Face does this a lot, usually when both halves of his personality want somebody dead. On one occasion he had Batman tied to the tails side of a giant penny and intended to flip it. If it landed heads, he'd be crushed, and if it landed tails the shockwave would shatter his skeleton.
  • At one point in Ex Machina, Mayor Hundred is on a talk-radio show and has been asked whether he, in the eventuality that Osama bin Laden was captured and put on trial in the United States, would support or oppose his execution. Answering yes goes against the mayor's own political statements as a firmly anti-death-penalty politician, but answering no makes him sound like he is sympathetic to bin Laden. The mayor instead calls the interviewer a "motherfucker" and walks out, pointing out to his staff that there is absolutely no correct answer to that question.
  • In Lucifer, the Japanese pantheon attempts this on Lucifer, since they want to kill him but honor forbids they do so without a technical cause. The plan is to serve sacred meat to him at a banquet. If he eats the meat, this will be a deadly insult. If he does not eat it, this is an affront to their hospitality, another deadly insult. It doesn't work, of course because Lucifer says he cannot possibly insult his hosts by partaking of the meat before they do. And as it turns out, Lucifer violated hospitality anyway by poisoning one of the gods during cocktail hour, but he also justifies that by reminding them that betrayal and intrigue are the rules by which his hosts live, and he is only obeying those rules.
  • Asterix: When a Corsican asks you with a Death Glare and a folding knife in his hand whether you like his attractive sister, both "yes" and "no" are wrong answers.
  • Gerry Conway says the death of Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man was meant to be this. Since Spider-Man tried to catch her with his web, the whiplash effect caused her neck to snap, killing her. But he couldn't have swung down to save her in time, and if he did nothing, she would have died when she hit the water anyway. A What If? story has him Take a Third Option by jumping off the bridge, catching her, and swinging them both to safety. As is typical of What If?, bad things still result, but Gwen survives.
  • Marvel Year In Review 1993 observes:
    You know, it's kind of a waste of time to create new characters for The Punisher's books. If they're Frank's enemies, they get shot dead after an appearance or two. If they're Frank's friends, they get shot dead after an appearance or two.
  • A particularly cruel case of this causes Snare's Heel–Face Turn in The Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers. Overlord would force his prisoners into pit fights for his own amusement. Once a pit fighter wins/survives about ten fights, Overlord takes them back to his quarters and gives them a choice; commit suicide or fight Overlord in hand-to-hand combat. As Snare points out, Overlord is an Implacable Man and Super Soldier built expressly for killing and has fought entire battalions single-handed, so there's really no difference between the two choices.
  • Age of Ultron: Ultron's drones maraud about yelling "surrender or perish!" The problem is, Ultron's a mass-murdering machine with a specific hatred for mankind, so surrendering just gets a person killed anyway (not that Ultron's drones usually give anyone a chance to try surrendering in the first place).
  • A Superman Family issue has Supergirl depowered and trapped by Lex Luthor in a cell. The only way out are two doors. One of them leads to a pit whose bottom is a bed of steel spikes. The other door opens onto a blast-furnace.
    Supergirl: Just the kind of duplicity I'd expect from Luthor. Both doors spell disaster! And either way, I lose... unless I go back the way I came!
  • In Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, the kid whose been told to keep an eye on the Jokermobile feels he's in one of these. If he runs, the Joker will feel he's broken their agreement, hunt him down and kill him. If he stays, the Joker will probably find something wrong with the car and kill him.

    Folklore 
  • A Chinese riddle: A pupil is brought before his master. The pupil sits across from him and the master places a bamboo cane and a cup of tea on the table. He says "If you do not drink this tea, I will beat you with this cane; if you do drink this tea, I will beat you with this cane." (The solution: The pupil takes away the cane.)
  • Quite a few riddles involve a rigged "choice" between a powerful person and a lesser person in the presence of an arbiter. It is a choice of two items (such as a pair of cards, one with a black spot, the other blank); one choice (in this case, the black spot) generally means death to the person, while the other means life. Unbeknownst to the arbiter, both cards are marked with the black spot. The lesser person, however, does know (or suspect) the trick, but the lesser person cannot simply abandon this choice because it would also result in death, and trying to call out the more powerful person would be no better. How does the lesser person survive? Choose a card, then immediately eat it before anyone else can see it. The remaining card will be a black spot, so the arbiter will assume that the lesser person consumed the blank. And if it turns out the powerful person was being fair after all, the lesser person would likely be no worse off than they would be if they'd simply showed their card.
  • One Anansi the Spider story involves this. Some bugs are caught by him and he proposes a liar's contest; everyone will tell an outrageous story and the winner is the first one to make the others say "That's not true!" When it gets to Anansi's turn, the tale he tells is about how all the bugs hatched from his garden are his property to do with as he pleases. Well, the bugs can't say "That's true," because they would be admitting they're Anansi's property, and be eaten. But they can't say "That's not true" either because they would be declaring Anansi the winner (and be eaten). They fly away instead, and that's why spiders are always hunting moths and mosquitoes.

    Music 
  • The Clash, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go":
    If I go there will be trouble
    If I stay it will be double
  • According to "Barbarism Begins At Home" by The Smiths:
    A crack on the head is what you'll get for not asking
    And a crack on the head is what you'll get for asking.
  • Ice-T, "New Jack Hustler:
    Got me twisted, jammed into a paradox. Every dollar I get, another brother drops. Maybe that's the plan, and I don't understand,God damn——you got me sinkin in quicksand!!
  • Huey Lewis and the News, "Workin' for a Livin'":
    Damned if you do, damned if you don't
    I'm supposed to get a raise week, you know damn well I won't

    Newspaper Comics 
  • The Far Side:
    • The strip once ran a panel where some poor guy is in Hell, standing in front of two doors, one marked "Damned if you do" and the other marked "Damned if you don't." If that wasn't bad enough, an impatient devil is standing off to the side, demanding that he make up his mind, implying that the guy can't Take a Third Option.
    • Another panel plays with the trope, albeit in the same location. A clerical worker in the pit asks a new arrival, "Would you like inferno or non-inferno? Ha! Just kidding. It's all inferno, of course. I just get a kick out of saying that."
  • Mother Goose and Grimm had a sequence with Grimm at obedience school. Naturally, he didn't want to go, and he tried to get out of it by claiming that he didn't really need it. "I'll obey! Give me a command, anything, and I'll obey!" Mother Goose promptly gave the perfect command: "Go to obedience school!"
  • An unidentified comic strip that went about like this:
    Man: I'm going to start trimming my nasal hair.
    Woman: Ewww!
    Man: Okay, so I'm not going to trim my nasal hair.
    Woman: Ewww!
  • U.S. Acres: Orson asked Booker and Sheldon if they wanted him to read a book or if they wanted to watch TV. Booker eagerly replied "Television!" and Orson then got inside a TV and started reading a book inside it.
  • In an arc of Peanuts strips, Charlie Brown and his family are going on vacation, and Snoopy can either stay in a kennel, or with Lucy. Snoopy's reaction to both suggestions is "AUUGHH!". (Eventually, he takes the latter.)
  • In the 2015 reboot of Bloom County, Opus is conscripted into being a Presidential candidate, which he does not want. In the strip seen here, a government official tells him he can't withdraw his candidacy, except by reason of insanity. When Opus tries that, the guy makes him swear he does not want to be President - which means he's clearly sane, and thus cannot withdraw. (The joke being, Opus has to be insane to withdraw from his candidacy for a position he'd clearly have to be insane to even want.)
  • Non Sequitur had one comic were a lawyer is stumped when he comes to a fork in the road where the sign pointing one way says "legal" and the sign pointing the other way says "ethical".

    Radio 
  • In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the Vogon leader tells his men that if he hears a word out of any of them, he'll shoot them all. Then he asks a question and tells them that if someone doesn't answer... well, guess.
  • In the radio adaptation of Eric, the Demon King Astfgl asks one of his minions if it knows why Astfgl is so angry. "Is it, perhaps, because I'm Surrounded by Idiots?" The junior demon stutters a reply, realising that it can either deny its lord's evident anger, or admit that Astfgl is, in fact, surrounded by idiots.
  • In the Big Finish Doctor Who drama "The Crimes of Thomas Brewster", the Doctor is kidnapped by a crime boss whose idiot henchman has mistaken him for a rival crime boss who happens to go by "the Doctor".
    Mr Gallagher: If you were the Doctor I was after, I'd let Mick take you outside and indulge his ... homicidal tendencies.
    Mick: Hur hur hur.
    Gallagher: Shut it!
    Doctor: But as I'm clearly the victim of a case of mistaken identity...
    Gallagher: You give me something of a problem. A problem with one very ... obvious solution.
    Doctor: A solution which involves Mick taking me outside...
    Gallagher: Well done, you've read me mind.
  • Conversational Troping in the Cabin Pressure episode "Valduz", in which Princess Theresa tries to explain to her Bratty Half-Pint A Child Shall Lead Them brother King Maxie that he can't cut people's heads off and he says he can if they commit treason. Theresa points out they're not going to commit treason, and Arthur suggests ordering them to cut their own heads off. Then if they do it, their head's cut off, and if they don't, they've disobeyed a royal command, which is treason.

    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • From Gilbert Gottfried, "Death or Ugu" (NSFW): Two people are captured by the Hollywood Natives of Darkest Africa and get to choose their fate: Death or ugu. The first guy figures that whatever ugu is, it has to be better than death, so he chooses ugu, and is promptly gang-raped by the entire tribe for several days straight. The second guy, now that he has seen what ugu is, immediately chooses death. The tribal leader obliges, "Death it is! ...But first, ugu."

    Theatre 
  • In Arthur Miller's The Crucible;:
    • Those accused of witchcraft face two choices; confess to being a witch (and be burned as a result) or hang for denial. This is even lampshaded:
    Hale: I have myself examined Tituba, Sarah Good, and numerous others that have confessed to dealing with the Devil. They have confessed it.
    Proctor: And why not, if they must hang for denyin’ it? There are them that will swear to anything before they’ll hang; have you thought of that?
    • Giles Corey manages to Take a Third Option by refusing to confess or deny it either way. They try to force him to talk by trapping him between two wooden boards and putting more and more rocks on the top board, gradually crushing him. His last words were "more weight". While all three options ended in his death, he managed to use a very unpleasant loophole, because if he confessed or denied, his land would be seized by the authorities, but the way he did it, his family inherited his property instead.
  • The first act of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The title character tries to Take a Third Option by stalling; this leads the king becoming suspicious of him and deciding to kill him anyway.
  • Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is set in Jerusalem during a ceasefire in the course of the Crusades. Sultan Saladin asks the titular character, a rich Jew famed for his wisdom, which of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is the true religion. If Nathan answered "Judaism", that would of course offend the devout Muslim Saladin, if he answered "Islam", he would reveal himself as a terrible hypocrite, and if he answered "Christianity" he would do both. He gets out of the dilemma by telling the Ring Parable (which Lessing took from Boccaccio), the gist of which is that it beyond human understanding to decide and that the correct answer - known only to God - may even be "none of the above".
  • Repeatedly played for laughs in The Merchant of Venice.
    • Launcelot, who wants to get out of working for Shylock, reasons that his master is a devil... but still, if he runs away and breaks his contract, he'll commit a sin, and then he'll be working for the devil anyway. He finally makes up his mind to run away, since he figures that the real devil is the lesser of two evils.
    • Later, Launcelot explains to Jessica that because the children suffer for the sins of the parents, she'll go to hell for being Shylock's daughter—the only way out is to turn out not to be his daughter. Jessica points out that, by that logic, she'd go to hell as punishment for her mother's unfaithfulness. Launcelot sums it up: "Truly then I fear you are damned both by father and mother; thus when I shun Scylla, your father, I fall into Charybdis, your mother; well, you are gone both ways."
  • In As You Like It, Touchstone tries to argue for unchastity in this manner. It doesn't work.
    Touchstone : No, truly, unless thou wert hard-favoured; for honesty coupled to beauty is to have honey a sauce to sugar.
    Jacques [Aside]: A material fool!
    Audrey: Well, I am not fair; and therefore I pray the gods make me honest.
    Touchstone : Truly, and to cast away honesty upon a foul slut were to put good meat into an unclean dish.
  • Jean Valjean's "I Am" Song "Who Am I" from Les Misérables - "If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent I am damned."
    • Similar is Javert's dilemma after Valjean spares him. His choice is to arrest Valjean for his past crimes (the lawful choice) or spare him in return (the moral choice). Either choice would mean Javert doing something wrong, and thus destroying his righteous self-image. The song's called "Javert's Suicide", in case you were wondering how that turned out.
  • In Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney uses this when explaining his new mindset as an Omnicidal Maniac: "The lives of the wicked should be made brief! For the rest of us, death will be a relief!"
  • In Doubt, Sister Aloysius finds herself in this position at the end. If she is correct about Father Flynn's guilt (she believes him to be a child molester who was either grooming or abusing a student at the school), all she's done is gotten him Kicked Upstairs into a position where he can do even greater harm. If she is wrong, her own petty prejudices led her to persecute a completely innocent man, and deprived a vulnerable student of his only protection.

    Toys 
  • Transformers: The Quintessons operate their Kangaroo Court thus. If the accused is found guilty, they're dunked into a Sharkticon pool and devoured. If they're innocent... they're still dunked in the pool and devoured. The trial's just for fun.

    Web Animation 
  • The infamous banana question Friendship Is Magic Bitch, one of the earliest and most beloved My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fan animations, involves Princess Celestia as a sadistic tyrant who herds ponies into her palace one by one and ultimately asks them if they like bananas. No matter what they answer, they get exiled to the moon (and called a bitch):
    Yes: That's good, 'cause you about to go bananas ON THE MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONAAAAAAAAA!!! BEE-YETCH!!!
    No: That's good, 'cause you ain't finding any bananas ON THE MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONAAAAAAAAA!!! BEE-YETCH!!!
    Unsure: Well I know where you can find out. You can find out ON THE MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONAAAAAAAAA!!! BEE-YETCH!!!
  • Ultra Fast Pony: In the opening scene of the episode "Winning", Apple Bloom needs help from Zecora, so she extorts her by threatening to tell the police that Zecora gave her drugs. Reluctantly, Zecora agrees. And how exactly does Apple Bloom need help? "I need you to give me drugs!"
  • Dragon Ball Z Abridged has Yajirobe fall afoul of this coupled with Hypocritical Heartwarming after damaging Vegeta's armour. Armour that he apparently got from his father.
    Yajirobe: I'm sorry! I'm sure your father was a great man!
    Vegeta: I hated my father!
    Yajirobe: Oh, then I'm sure your father was a prick.
    Vegeta: How dare you talk about my father like that!
  • Smashtasm has the scene where Grant and Gront are reporting to Girem6. Gront keeps pissing off Girem6, which leads said Big Bad to order another mook to inflict pain on Grant. After a few hits, and asking why he's the one being punished, Grant is told that "Hitting the partner of the offender encourages discipline." Grant tries to get even by insulting his boss, who orders him to be punished anyway, "Because I blame your friend for that comment."
  • In GoAnimate Grounded videos, there are times where troublemakers will have the adult of the video demand to know what they have done under threat of punishment. When the troublemakers fess up, they're still punished anyway.

    Web Original 

Alternative Title(s): Zugzwang, Damned If You Do Damned If You Dont

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