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Original Position Fallacy

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"When I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."
Abraham Lincoln, Statement to an Indiana Regiment passing through Washington (17 March 1865)

A situation in which a character is in favor of some action, revolution or social system because they assume that they will be in the group that benefits from it (or fail to realize that they will be in the group that will suffer). Inevitably, they will discover that they were wrong, with the double whammy of knowing they supported the measure that caused their suffering when they thought it would happen to somebody else.

Imagine that Bob attends a banquet for 200 people at the mayor's house. When he arrives, he is informed that they made an error when ordering the food: there is enough steak for the first 100 guests, but everyone else will have to make do with vegetables. Bob, looking around and seeing the room less than half full, says he thinks this is fair. Only afterward does he see the second dining room, filled up with people who arrived earlier, and realize that he isn't going to be in the group that gets a full dinner.


Poor Bob. He would have been wiser to remember the thought experiment from which this trope takes its name: John Rawls' "original position", which says that the only fair laws are those passed from behind the hypothetical "veil of ignorance" (i.e. you don't know whether you'll be on the good or the bad side of the change). Bob might have suggested giving out half portions of steak so that all the guests could have some meat. Unfortunately, he wasn't willing to give away half of 'his' share, and the result was a missed steak.

The main upshot of this trope is to show that blind self-interest is a bad thing — Bob shouldn't have been so quick to give "someone else" a steak-less dinner when he thought his meal would be fine. If he is fortunate, the plot will hand him a second chance to approach the question — presumably with a bit more compassion this time. But in many cases it's too late for regrets: Bob has his vegetables, and now he must eat them. (Some uses of this trope begin in Act 2, where Bob is now in the thick of a miserable situation and laments that he used to want this to happen.)


Of course, it is also possible that the mayor — who did know the outcome and could assign the menu options — steered Bob into making a choice that was worse for him, perhaps to damn him by his own words. Call it an "Original Position Gambit" if you will. This trope is also one of the places where Off the Table doesn't shift sympathy away from the person who refuses to re-extend the offer. ("Oh, Bob wants to make a more generous division now? Too bad.")

A character whose thinking falls into the Original Position Fallacy may start out as a Hell Seeker, end up as a Boomerang Bigot, Dirty Coward, or any combination thereof. One category of people particularly vulnerable to this thinking is the Sub-Par Supremacist. If someone pulled the gambit version on Bob, it was probably a Magnificent Bastard skilled in Gambit Speed Chess. When this fallacy is weaponized, the result is usually a The Window or the Stairs situation.

This fallacy also drives a Prophecy Twist or two - someone hearing a prophecy thinks it'll come true on terms that'll be favourable to them, or that they'll never be in a situation where the prophecy might screw them over. May also result in a Karmic Transformation; sometimes forms the 'twist' of a Karmic Twist Ending. Contrast Who Will Bell the Cat?, where attempts to make a change that would benefit most at the cost of a few are stalled by the fact that no one wants to be "the few."

Closely related to Moral Myopia and Protagonist-Centered Morality. The Inverted Trope is of course The Golden Rule: Only do things to others that you can agree would be fair if done to you.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Cross Ange: Humans exile Norma (humans who cannot use Mana and negate Mana that comes into contact with them) to an island in the middle of nowhere to act as Slave Mooks to protect their Crapsaccharine World, making them Un-person. Princess Angelise of the Mitsurugi Empire considers this entirely appropriate... until it turns out in the first episode that she's a Norma herself and her royal parents had covered it up. The fallacy is pointed out to her face in episode three.
  • In Death Note, Light Yagami spends much of the series as The Social Darwinist, believing that anyone he kills with the Death Note was evil, incompetent, or for the greater good and deserved to die. When it comes time for his own death, however, he is the only character who does not die peacefully, refusing to accept his end. In the manga, at least, he screams and pleads with anyone to try to extend his own life once Ryuk writes Light's name into his own Death Note. In other versions, once he's been identified as the wielder of the Death Note, Light makes a run for it. That is, Light considers anyone who dies in his scheme to have deserved their deaths, until he gets caught in it.
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, both the Emperor of Xerxes and the military leadership of Amestris fall victim to this. They both conspire with Father, the original Homunculus, to commit mass human sacrifice in order to achieve immortality; none of them realize that their immortality will consist of having their souls transmuted into a Philosopher's Stone.
  • Monster Rancher: Allan wants to join Moo, assuming that he'll get to be in charge because he's human. He fails to consider that Moo might not want human followers, or that many of the monsters working for Moo want Revenge on abusive trainers like him. He's shocked beyond belief when the Seed Sisters immediately betray him and offer Worm the chance to do the same.
  • Naruto: Danzo was all in favor of instructing his ninjas to sacrifice themselves if need be, in part because his own high rank made his chances of doing so himself extremely low. In a rare variation of this trope, he was aware of this hypocrisy and hated himself for it. Even more so because when he was younger, he hesitated at a crucial moment and instead it was his master the Second Hokage who sacrificed himself for the sake of the village. Ultimately he does end up making one to stop Tobi from getting Shishui's eye.

    Comic Books 
  • In Chick Tracts, one of the most common types of Straw Loser is the guy who isn't afraid of Hell. One variant of this is that he believes that hell exists and that it is a horrible place for the damned, but also believes that he'll be one of Satan's demons reigning in hell. Of course, his fate invariably turns out to be much crueler. (The two other main variants are those who don't believe that hell exists and those who think that it's not such a bad place.)
  • One EC Comics horror story features the Devil noticing that hell isn't much of a scary place anymore, so he abducts and hires a human corporate consultant to whip the place into shape. After a few months, the demons are sadistic torturers and hell is once again filled with the screams of the damned, so the Devil sends the consultant back to Earth with a chest full of jewels right where he'd taken him... that is, a few seconds before he was about to get run over by a bus. The consultant's soul is judged and sent to hell... where his former students are very eager to show off their progress.
  • Judge Dredd: The worldwide nuclear war behind most of the setting's problems was started by the American president, certain as he was that the US's radiation shields would prevent fallout from affecting them. He was disbelievingly disabused of this notion after the nukes started flying.
  • The Walking Dead: From the fall of the prison safe zone onwards, Rick and Abraham stress that survival is the most important thing and that morals simply hold people back. They end up profoundly shaken when they meet those who take such ideas to their natural conclusion; Gabriel, who abandoned his congregation to hide in his church, The Hunters, who cannibalized survivors, and Eugene, who lied about being able to cure the zombie virus to get people to ensure his survival. In the end, they conclude that they have to set better examples and that the zombie apocalypse can’t be an excuse to do otherwise.
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore tackles this with his superheroes Rorscharch and the Comedian.
    • Both of them are Sociopathic Heroes who take on positions of Straw Nihilist and The Antinihilist respectively. They keep telling people that Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!, that they alone know "the truth" about the absurdity and harshness of the world. Then they come face to face with someone who internalizes their sayings and decides to do something about it, and their facade of cynicism totally cracks.
    • Rorschach earlier espoused support of Harry Truman using the atomic bombs to end World War II, saying it was a terrible act that saved millions. When he comes across Ozymandias who uses a similar justification to unleash an attack on New York City (as a Genghis Gambit to end the Cold War and avert an incipient nuclear war), he denounces this action and states that he will expose the truth instead, only for him to be killed by Dr. Manhattan, one more body added to the pile sacrificed for the greater good. It's implied that this is sort of Suicide by Cop due to Rorshach being unable to reconcile the outcome of Ozymandias's actions with his own Black-and-White Morality.

    Comic Strips 
  • Calvin and Hobbes
    • In one strip Calvin complains to Hobbes that the ends should justify the means: you shouldn't get in trouble if you get what you want. Hobbes promptly pushes Calvin into a mud puddle, saying that Calvin was in his way but now he's not, so the ends justify the means. An irate Calvin shouts that he only meant for him, not for everybody.
    • Another strip has Calvin decide to become a fatalist. That way, if bad things happen he's not responsible for them. Cue Hobbes tripping him into the mud puddle again.
      Hobbes: Too bad you were fated to do that.
      Calvin: THAT WASN'T FATE!
  • There's one Non Sequitur arc wherein Danae visits an alternate reality where every person on earth had one wish come true. She and her alternate come across an Acceptable Target politician, and the alternate Danae explains that he'd wished that slavery would become legal again. Danae then asks "And what about the guy who owns him?" The alternate says that he made the same wish.
  • Humorously averted in a Dutch Sjors & Sjimmie comic. Their guardian the Colonel is outraged when hearing the news that a Disco has opened in their town, while in another town's disco a man causing a violent disturbance was given a mere slap on the wrist. But as part of his attempts to get the title characters to not go to their town's disco, he's arrested for causing a violent disturbance in that disco. The comic ends with The Colonel on a medieval execution platform, complete with an axewielding headsmen... and him being happy that at least in their town they don't just give violent offenders a slap on the wrist.

    Fan Works 
  • Harry is a Dragon, and That's Okay: Professor Umbridge puts up a number of blatantly and aggressively pro-human and authoritarian posters around Hogwarts — without putting her name on them, so even Hermione feels no qualms about pulling them down. When Professor Umbridge complains to the Headmaster about it, he agrees that letting people put up posters might be worth a try — so he announces that anyone can put up posters, and that people should please not take them down. Cue large numbers of much more creative and impressive posters in support of the "unusually shaped" students, including many that express thanks to them for how helpful they've been, along with some that poke fun at Umbridge herself.
    Then there was one which asked if anyone had seen an escaped toad, adding that the toad in question had a Dreadful on its Defence course and seemed to think it could teach the subject anyway.
  • The Karma of Lies: Adrien presumes that Lila's scheming and scamming doesn't really matter because he's already aware of her true nature; thus, nothing she does can really impact HIM. The fact that she's conning his classmates isn't a big deal since he's not personally affected (and he's too rich to understand how much they're losing). Naturally, Lila exploits his Moral Myopia to string him along, luring him into helping her out despite knowing what she's like, then stabs him in the back for a major payday. Then and only then is he willing to tell the others that she's a Con Artist, with his classmates abandoning him when they learn that he's known from the start and happily watched her grift them of their most prized belongings.
  • In Mutant Storm, Pansy Parkinson spends a lot of time claiming that other girls should be happy and pleased with their place in life once Voldemort takes over. Then, Bellatrix Lestrange gets killed, and Pansy gets a letter demanding she take her place as the Dark Lord's concubine without anyone caring about her opinion. The next day, she's groveling at the knees of the other side.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Played with in Avengers: Infinity War. Thanos plans to kill half the universe to prevent an Overpopulation Crisis. In some dialog, he hints this could kill him as well and has no objection to it. When Dr. Strange asks how he'll judge who lives and who dies, Thanos bluntly responds that he won't; the deaths will be entirely random.note  However, at another point, Thanos states he will gaze upon a grateful universe, suggesting he knows he'll be around after killing half of the universe. When he succeeds at the end, Thanos is still around, but using the completed Infinity Gauntlet is shown to take its toll on him (and moreso in Endgame), implying he anticipated the backlash and wasn't sure if he'd survive.
  • The "I was a celebrity in a past life" variant is humorously discussed in Bull Durham.
    Annie: I think probably with my love of four-legged creatures and hooves and everything, that in another lifetime I was probably Catherine the Great, or Francis of Assisi. I'm not sure which one. What do you think?
    Crash: How come in former lifetimes, everybody is someone famous? (Beat, then they both bust out laughing) I mean, how come nobody ever says they were Joe Schmoe?
    Annie: Because it doesn't work that way, you fool!
  • In H-E Double Hockey Sticks, a hockey player obsessed with winning the Stanley Cup makes a Deal with the Devil so that his team wins the cup. Yay, right? Nope. The demon's boss then has him traded to the worst team in the NHL. So now, not only will he not get the trophy, he's also sold his soul for nothing. Luckily, said demon has a change of heart and points out the Loophole Abuse - if another team wins the cup, the contract is null and void, so the player has to beat his team of losers into shape in order to win the cup and regain his soul.

  • A common joke involving Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe runs thus: On his deathbed, a man remarks to his wife that he has one son who is large and strong, a second who is quick and clever, and a third who is a moron. He begs her to answer honestly — is the third son truly his? She reassures him that he is, and the man dies in peace. "Thank God he didn't ask about the other two," she then mutters.
  • A man goes to Hell. The Devil greets him and says to pick his torture. "You have to pick wisely because this will be your torture for eternity."
    The man goes through hundreds of rooms but can't decide, until he sees a room where a man is sitting on a couch, watching sports, and getting a blowjob from a cheerleader. The man says, "This is what I want to do for eternity!" The Devil asks him if he's sure, and the man screams, "Hell, yes!"
    The Devil goes over to the cheerleader and says, "You can stop now: I found someone to replace you."
  • A joke common in historical 4X gaming communities:
    My girlfriend told me I should treat her like a princess.
    So I married her off to a total stranger to strengthen my alliance with France.

  • Happens quite a lot in fairy tales. The usual scenario is that at the wedding of the long-suffering female protagonist, the king will ask whoever tormented her what the proper punishment should be for a series of crimes (these crimes inevitably being the ones they did to her). The evil characters, failing to see the trap, callously suggest something horrible (e.g. "They should be put into red hot iron shoes and forced to dance until dead"), which is promptly done to them.
    • The Goose Girl in Grimm’s fairy tales ends this way, involving being dragged up and down the street in a barrel filled with nails.
    • Giambattista Basile's The Myrtle ends with six jealous murderesses Buried Alive, just as they suggested should be done to anyone who dared harm the prince's lovely bride (she came Back from the Dead).
    • There is a fairy tale where a Lazy Bum hears about an island of one-eyed men, so he decides to go there, kidnap one, and make a living from The Freakshow. He didn't even consider the fact that two-eyed man is quite the freak show for the one-eyed...
  • Ascendance of a Bookworm:
    • The series' basic concept plays with the trope. Our heroine is reincarnated into a Medieval European Fantasy world, But unlike many other Light Novel protagonists, ends up born to a family of commoners.
    • A knight named Shikza finds himself needing to guard a person of lower status than himself, whom he happens to resent. The only other two people present are of lower status than him, as well. Because of this, Shikza assumes he can do as he pleases with the person he's meant to guard and attacks her. Tables are turned on Shikza when he's reminded that the person who asked him to stand guard is of higher status than him.
  • Averted in Atlas Shrugged. The population of Galt's Gulch consists entirely of people who were either wealthy in the outside world, or aspired to be. Clearly, a functioning society requires menial laborers, and some people will be at the bottom of the heap. But because Galt's Gulch is part of Ayn Rand's utopian Author Filibuster, everyone's presented as very happy with this system: former CEOs who end up as underlings claim to be completely satisfied, as long as their boss is more skilled and qualified than they are.
  • Discussed in Colonel Butler's Wolf by Anthony Price. Butler compares himself to one of his more liberal-minded colleagues, noting that the colleague assumes he'd have been one of the masters in the old days but prefers modern society anyway, while Butler himself thinks the old ways were better even though he knows perfectly well he'd have been one of the servants.
  • In C. S. Lewis's commentary on the Psalms, Lewis points out that the Psalmists asking God to strike down the wicked rarely think that they themselves could be wicked (though, of course, in other Psalms the tone is more humble), and that in real life, some people's reaction to discovering a system to be unjust and exploitative is to work towards being on top of the heap so they can take advantage of it.
  • Discworld:
    • Inverted for (pre-Ridcully) wizards and Assassins, who view their respective hierarchies as stifling and extremely unfair, but are very happy with it once they become high rankers themselves. Those who don't achieve high ranks... let's just say their complaints are unlikely to matter.
    • In The Last Continent, the Chair of Indefinite Studies darkly mutters that in "the old days" they used to kill wizards like Ridcully. The Dean points out that they also used to kill wizards like them. Of course, this is also a bit inaccurate. Ridcully was originally recruited as a useful hick who could take the job and not make waves but be easily assassinated if he was a problem. Turns out that, as a country wizard, he's in alarmingly good shape and a crack shot with a crossbow.
  • The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman tackles this head-on. Sophie — a girl from 1960 — gets to travel back in time to 1860 and visit her ancestors' plantation. She assumes they'll recognize her as part of the family. They do, but her tan skin, frizzy hair, and lack of 19th-century manners mean they figure her mother must have been black, and so she winds up as a slave by the one-drop rule.
  • In one of the books of Guardians of Ga'Hoole, the main character Nyroc is born to Nyra, head of the "Pure Ones", an organization of owls made up of the family Tytonidae (the barn owls) whose goal is to eliminate the Guardians of Ga'hoole and purify the owl kingdoms. One of Nyroc's friends is Phillip, a member of species of Tytonidae called greater sooty owls. When he and his father were starving, they decided to join the organization as new recruits in hopes of a better life. Unfortunately, as Phillip discovers, not only are the Pure Ones racist towards other owls, but discriminate among their own kind based on feather color, with the white Tyto albas at the top of the hierarchy. Phillip (or Dustytuft as the other owls called him) ended up on the lower ranks of the social ladder, just above lesser sooty owls, forced to do the most menial and worst of jobs.
  • Harry Potter:
    • Many people who joined the Death Eaters were merely in it For the Evulz, or the chance to get ahead in wizarding society, or because Voldemort's victory seemed certain (and many were half-bloods masquerading as pureblood). Some found out that his evil was far beyond the bullying and Muggle-baiting they were used to, some tried to claim they'd been mind-controlled the entire time, and others still found themselves too deeply compromised to do anything but keep serving him.
    • In the backstory, Severus Snape turned on the Death Eaters and became a Double Agent for Dumbledore's Order of the Phoenix after Voldemort targeted Lily Potter (nee Evans), with whom he had been in a Love Triangle with James Potter when they were all students at Hogwarts. Meaning basically that he was all on board with Voldemort's plans until they affected somebody he actually cared about.
    • The goblins welcomed Voldemort's upheaval of the wizarding world at first, thinking it the end of wizardkind's casual contempt on nonhuman magic beings. Instead, they seemed to have been reduced to menial work (quoth Griphook, who escaped: "I am no house-elf."). You'd think going with an organization that prides itself on purity of wizarding lineage would have set off more warning bells.
  • Isaac Asimov was acutely aware of this phenomenon, both when selectively pining for the Good Old Days and when imagining the societies of the future.
    • A dinner conversation with his wife about the time "when it was easy to get servants", in which Asimov claimed that they themselves would be the servants, was later incorporated into one of Asimov's essays as an example.
    • The short story "The Winnowing" describes a global food shortage which the World Food Council intends to remedy by poisoning the most famine-struck areas — all of them comfortably distant from their own homes — with a biological agent that would kill 70% of the population at random. Their high-minded platitudes about "the finger of God" selecting the victims evaporate when the scientist they coerced into assisting reveals that he added the agent to the sandwiches they've just eaten.note 
  • One Judge Dee story has the judge attend a play, in which two brothers are complaining about their inheritance, each claiming they got shafted while waving the paper that lists their share. The judge of the play tells the brothers to exchange lists.
  • Shirley Jackson's townspeople in "The Lottery" are perfectly fine with the annual Lottery of Doom that will end in a Human Sacrifice (it's traditional!). Only the victim protests, and even then only when it becomes clear that her life is at stake.
  • In the Nemesis Series, man-hating female mage Graywytch casts a spell to kill off all men, defined for the purposes of the spell as having a Y chromosome. She nearly dies herself, which Danny (a trans-girl and target of Graywytch’s transphobic tendencies) theorizes that she's actually intersex, i.e. genetically XY male with androgen insensitivity. Though Graywytch refuses to accept this explanation, insisting she accidentally Cast From Hitpoints instead. It's never explicitly confirmed which is true, but the book seems to lean to Danny's explanation.
  • In one of the stories of Ooka Tadasuke, a famous Japanese judge of the 18th century, he has to divide a father's estate between twin sons. One is known as greedy and selfish; the other is known as having helped the father and for being honorable. No one can tell which son is which. Ooka picks one son at random and tells him to divide the estate using tokens representing the various assets. The chosen son starts giving himself all the money and property, and gives his brother merely the good will of the neighbors. The crowd thinks Ooka made a huge mistake until Ooka announces that he told the son to divide the estate, but that only Ooka has the power to award the items. Ooka gives the money to the honorable son and tells the greedy son that he needs the neighbors' good will more.
  • In a short story by Robert Sheckley, in an anthology compiled by Isaac Asimov, a young man, obsessed with sex, finds a magical text that will allow him to assume the job of feeding griffins, aware that griffins' favorite food is young virgins (thinking he might have some fun with offering a girl the obvious way out). It turns out that the young man is actually a virgin, and that he is not serving food for the griffin, he is the food.
  • Robertson Davies once wrote a short story (collected in the anthology High Spirits) in which a group of academics, after being bored to tears listening to a newly minted literature graduate student gush about how cool it would be to go live in the past, proceeded to summon the minds of their ancestors to inhabit their present bodies. And it turns out none of them had a particularly interesting past.
  • In the first novel of the Slave World series, the heroine is horrified with how naively her colleagues embrace the Alternate Timeline world they have found. The scientists join the society, believing that they will get to be part of the aristocracy and thus accept the social order where the aristocrats have absolute power over everyone else. And yes, they do end up enslaved.
    • Zigzagged in the third novel, as Sarah seems to be falling in the same trap as her predecessors. She's actually setting herself up for permanent enslavement, although her plan is to belong to the woman she loves... who then gives her the basic "thanks but no thanks" and auctions her off to a random aristocrat... a young lady who grows to become the true love of her life.
  • In These Words Are True and Faithful, Cassilda advocates for government to constrain others' lives, assuming that she and people like her will be the beneficiaries. Her opponents invoke the same government powers whose expansion she advocates to shut down her pet project.
  • In the Thursday Next novel One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, Thursday is trapped in the Oral Tradition aboard the ship Ethical Dilemma, which is the setting of an ethics lecture about the morality of killing or torturing one person to save a larger group. Thursday chooses to give the lecturer an aneurysm in order to save the ship.
  • The War of the Worlds was partially written as a critique of Social Darwinism. Many people who believed that superior people should be in power would be extremely unhappy if a superior race of alien invaders took over.
  • "The Destiny of Milton Gomrath" has a garbage collector being convinced all his life that there's something wrong with the world and his position in it. One day he's visited by a being who says there's been a mistake and he actually belongs in an Alternate Universe, a Medieval European Fantasy world of brave knights, beautiful princesses, and heroic deeds. The garbageman eagerly agrees to go there instead, where it turns out his job is to clean the manure out of the castle stables, and his home is a pile of straw in the corner.
  • X-Wing Series:
    • Played for Laughs in Rogue Squadron. At Bror Jace's instigation, the unit holds a mock Court Martial of Ensign Newbie Gavin Darklighter, Jace arguing that he should be "apprenticed" to the highest-scoring pilot (currently himself) on the grounds that he has, as yet, scored only one kill in three engagements. Nawara, a former defense attorney, defends Gavin to Wedge, Tycho, and a bit character, and reaches a "plea deal" where Corran agrees to split his nine kills with Gavin and judge the best and worst pilot by percentages. Wedge then wryly points out that, having been awarded four additional kills in the plea deal, Gavin is no longer the worst pilot in the squadron: Nawara himself, with one kill, is.
      Nawara: No appeal?
      Wedge: To you there probably is not, but the idea of a lawyer getting the sentence instead of his client has some appeal to me.
      Nawara: Perhaps it is true that a lawyer who has himself as a client is a fool.
    • Wraith Squadron: After ambushing the Wraiths, resulting in Jesmin Ackbar dying and Myn Donos having a PTSD break, the leader of a gang of Space Pirates tries to argue to Wedge Antilles that the battle had taken place in an unclaimed star system, and so there were no laws there and they had the right to defend themselves. Wedge sarcastically agrees and says in that case they were free to go—but of course if there were no laws, that also meant there were no laws against the Wraiths killing all the pirates and looting their supplies. The pirate leader quickly changes his mind about whether there are any laws in the star system.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Discussed in The West Wing. After a motion to strengthen the Estate Tax / Death Tax is defeated in congress, President Bartlett muses that the problem with The American Dream is that it makes everyone worry about how they'll protect their assets once they become rich.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "Day of the Doctor": The Doctor (three of them, actually — the War Doctor, Ten, and Eleven, to be exact) activate a memory-erasure device on the heads of UNIT and the shape-shifting Zygons to negotiate a peace treaty to make everyone forget who's a human and who's an alien, forcing them to consider this trope's effects, since the head of UNIT activated a bomb that would set off a nuclear warhead, resulting in the destruction of them and the Zygons, along with the collection of dangerous alien artifacts and all of London.
Eleven: ...You're going to negotiate the most perfect treaty of all time —
Ten: — Safeguards all 'round, completely fair on both sides —
Eleven: — And the key to perfect negotiation: —
Ten: Not knowing what side you're on.
  • The Odd Couple (1970): In "The Odd Couple Meet Their Host", Felix tries to push Oscar into doing a show about his own messiness, assuring him that people will think it's funny despite Oscar's fear of looking foolish. When Oscar ends up talking about his roommate's neurotic habits, Felix is furious at being humiliated.
  • In an episode of Saved by the Bell, Zack winds up learning a lesson this way. He's allowed to choose the teams for an athletic competition and is told to make them balanced, so he puts all the jock-types on one team, assuming he'll be the captain of that team, and all the nerd-types on the other. The teacher, then explicitly asks him again if he is sure that the teams are balanced, appoints him as the captain of the nerd team when he said yes, saying something to the effect of "Yes, I let you pick the teams, but I pick the captains."
  • Blackadder: An offscreen version in the first season, where Edmund, now the Archbishop of Canterbury, must convince a dying nobleman to leave his lands to the Crown rather than the Church (which, according to the Church, will send him to hell). Edmund (who was appointed archbishop after his father King Richard IV had his predecessor murdered when he convinced another dying nobleman to leave his lands to the Church) points out that heaven is exceedingly boring, while hell is filled with the kind of people who appreciated the finer things in life, such as pillage, adultery and torture. The nobleman enthusiastically declares he wants to go to hell and bequeaths his lands to the Crown, with no word on whether he ended up among the torturers or the tortured.
  • Discussed in The Handmaid's Tale. When the Mexican ambassador makes a state visit to Gilead in one episode, she notes that before the revolution Serena Joy Waterford wrote many books defending Gilead's brand of far-right extremist Christianity. Gilead, of course, forbade women's education and literacy on religious grounds, which means there's no one to read Serena Joy's books anymore and Serena Joy herself is mostly stuck at home bored out of her skull. She initially dismisses this, but it eats at her and leads to her having a nasty falling-out with her husband that carries into season 2.
  • Babylon 5:
    • A first-season Monster of the Week episode has an archaeologist recover a Bio-Augmentation module for Super Soldiers from an Advanced Ancient Acropolis. The weapon was designed for use against an Alien Invasion, but its target selection programming was done by ideological zealots who also wanted to "purify" their own race. As it turned out, none of their own species, ideologues included, could meet the high standard of purity that was set.
    • Marcus Cole references something similar to this in one episode.
      "You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn't it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? (Beat) So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe."
  • Person of Interest: In "Nothing to Hide", tech CEO Wayne Kruger defends "Big Data" with the argument that if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear from your personal information being available on the Internet. During a presentation on the subject, the radical libertarian group Vigilance hacks the projector and publicly exposes Kruger's own secrets, including that he was cheating on his wife, which sends him into a Villainous Breakdown.
  • Star Trek: Enterprise: Terra Prime in the final two episodes is a human-supremacist group whose leader John Paxton idolizes Colonel Green, a 21st century tyrant who exterminated irradiated victims of World War III. T'Pol discovers that not only does Paxton secretly have a genetic disorder that would have marked him for death under Green's regime, but he's been treating it with imported Rigelian medicine. T'Pol tries to blackmail him into standing down over this, but Paxton claims his followers wouldn't believe it coming from a Vulcan. (Events move too fast after this to actually test his opinion.)

  • Steve Taylor crossed this trope with Hoist by His Own Petard in "Lifeboat". Mrs. Aryan gives her students a "values clarification" scenario, asking them who should get thrown out of an overloaded life boat. To her gratification, the class quickly agrees the old, disabled, and others who don't contribute to society should go. However, in the middle of a lesson on gravity, the class tosses her out the window, reasoning that she told them people only deserve to exist if they're perfect and she's growing old.
    Kids: Throw over teacher and we'll see if she can bounce
    We've learned our lesson; teacher says perfection's what counts.
    She's getting old and gray and wears an ugly coat
    Throw over teacher and we'll play another game of Lifeboat!

    Myths & Religion 
  • In The Bible:
    • In the Book of Esther, King Ahasuerus asks his advisor Haman what a good reward would be for someone who had done the king a great service. Haman assumes it's for him and suggests an elaborate display, with the honored person riding the king's horse, wearing the king's robe, and being led by a noble shouting "See what is done for the man the king wishes to honor!" Ahasuerus thinks it's a great idea — and then tells him to go do just that for Mordecai, Haman's hated rival who had foiled a coup attempt against Ahasuerus but was never rewarded properly. And it just gets worse for Haman after that.
    • In 2 Samuel chapter 12, the prophet Nathan invokes this to guilt-trip King David after learning that David had Uriah killed and took Uriah's wife Bathsheba for himself in the previous chapter. Nathan tells a story about a rich man with many sheep, whose neighbor is a poor man with only one lamb, and the rich man steals his neighbor's lamb and slaughters it for his dinner. David angrily says that such a man deserves to be put to death. Nathan replies "You are such a man!" David isn't killed, but he is horrified at what he's done and immediately sets about trying to repent, and the Kingdom of Israel is cursed to fall as a consequence of his misdeed (first by the split between Israel and Judah in the reign of his grandson Rehoboam, then by the Babylonian conquest).

    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • Brent Butt (of Corner Gas fame) had a bit where he recalled encountering an extremely scrawny guy wearing a shirt bearing the anarchy symbol, and naturally mocked how unlikely he'd be to survive if he ever got his wish.
    Butt: You think he's thought this through? You think he wants to live in a world without rules? All 74 pounds of him? Think he's gonna do well in a Mad Max society? They're gonna give him the Grand Puba horns and let him call the shots, you figure? Or is he gonna be the hood ornament on a dune buggy around Day 2? Some 300-pound biker eatin' soup out of his skull, that's what's gonna happen.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In BattleTech, Brett Andrews, Khan of Clan Steel Viper, was elected ilKhan of the Clans and declared his intent to purge them of the "taint" of the Inner Sphere. This led to the Wars of Reaving, which saw the destruction of many of the Clans and several others being forced to flee to the Inner Sphere. Finally, he declared that all the tainted Clans had been destroyed, only for Khan Stanislov N’Buta of Clan Star Adder to remind him that there was one Clan that had been tainted by its time in the Inner Sphere left: Clan Steel Viper. Andrews challenged him to an unarmed duel, then killed him with a laser pistol, violating both the prohibition of carrying weapons into the Clan Council and the honor of the duel, which the other assembled Khans used as evidence that N'Buta was right. The Steel Vipers promptly became the final Clan to be destroyed for being tainted by the Inner Sphere. For added irony, the Steel Vipers were the only Clan that had actually occupied a part of the Inner Sphere that were wiped out in the Wars of Reaving, as all the other Clans that invaded the Inner Sphere either survived (Clan Jade Falcon, Clan Wolf, Clan Ghost Bear, Clan Snow Raven, Clan Diamond Shark, Clan Nova Cat) or were destroyed prior to the Wars of Reaving (Clan Smoke Jaguar, Clan Ice Hellion). The other Clans that were destroyed were ones that had never gone to the Inner Sphere.
  • Dungeons & Dragons:
    • This is a common ploy of the Lawful Evil alignment, inviting people to join a system that benefit the strong at the expense of the weak. The regular adherent is an Asshole Victim who overestimated his strength and is really unhappy with finding himself as one of the despised and exploited weaklings. Similarly, Fiendish Codex II explains this is why someone would willingly sell their soul in a Deal with the Devil — they expect their natural ability or special relationship with their fiendish patron will lead them to swiftly take positions of power and prestige in the diabolic hierarchy after their deaths, allowing them to pursue their mortal ambitions as a mighty pit fiend. Unfortunately for them, as soon as mortal souls arrive in Baator they're tortured until they suffer a Death of Personality and have been twisted into the very least of devils.
      "No tyrant looks upon a wretched lemure and thinks that this will be their afterlife."
    • In the Dark Sun setting's history, the Companions helped the insane Absolute Xenophobe Rajaat execute his genocide of all the "impure" sapient races of Athas, right up until they realized that he wasn't actually human and counted humans among the impure races. Cue a collective Oh, Crap! and hasty ploy to seal his evil in a can.
  • In the Mutant Chronicles book Ilian, there are two short-stories on this theme. Humans who joined the cult of Ilian because they wanted to become the exploiters rather then the exploited. And of course, their futures are so bright, since Ilian will smile upon them forever... until they fail or get backstabbed by each other, that is. Suckers.
  • Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy Battles:
    • Many who devote themselves to the Gods of Chaos do so for personal gain, with the most ambitious hoping to be rewarded with immortality as daemon princes. Unfortunately for them, their patrons are just as likely to ignore them, drive them insane, give them what they want in a cruelly ironic way, or subject them to awful transformations. Many instances of Chaos Spawn were once up-and-coming champions of Chaos until they washed out and mutated beyond control, becoming little more than feral attack-animals herded into battle by their former subordinates.
    • In 40K, the fall of the Eldar was brought about by the psychic Space Elves' continuous hedonism creating a new Chaos god/dess in the Warp. Some pleasure cults actually did their best to accelerate this process, believing they'd be rewarded with an eternity of new sensations. The Dark Eldar are now an entire race of Klingon Promotion-enforcing combat sadomasochists who need to hide in the Webway lest Slaanesh (the hermaphroditic embodiment of excess known as She Who Thirsts) devour their souls, and can emerge into realspace only long enough to conduct quick raids for slaves.
    • In Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, mutants are hated and feared for their obvious taint of Chaos; but one book points out that, while many denizens of the Empire have little problem condemning mutants if they're someone they don't know (or like), attitudes change fairly quickly once they or their loved ones experience mutation themselves. In particular, families that experience the birth of mutant children usually decide to either hide the baby or abandon them in the woods, rather than kill them or consign them to the witch hunters as is their duty.
  • In Book of the Dead, a book for the New World of Darkness (mostly Geist: The Sin-Eaters and Mage: The Awakening), all the underworld realms presented are designed so the gamemaster can play them this way. It's outright encouraged in general, and one of the realms is designed so it's hard to NOT play it this way. This realm is called Oppia, and is a place of abundant soul-energy in the form of delicious food. The rulers are very generous and hospitable, and their rules seem simple enough. Sure, the system runs on enslavement of souls, but those idiots are bad guests who broke the rules. Seems easy enough to accept... until you realize how very easy it actually is to break the rules. Including by accident.
  • Pathfinder: Defied by the Gray Gardeners, the secretive order of executioners that maintains the Final Blades of Galt—the magical guillotines upon which accused enemies of the Red Revolution are beheaded.note  As the only lasting power center amidst the Red Revolution, the Gray Gardeners keep their own identities secret to lessen the risk that the mob might turn on them as well.

  • In Act II of William Shakespeare's Henry V, a trio of nobles are secretly plotting against Henry. In Scene 2, Henry mentions he plans to forgive a man who spoke against him in public, attributing it to drunkenness. The three nobles say the man should be punished, at which time Henry reveals that he knows about their treachery. They beg for mercy, and Henry says they'll get the mercy they wanted for the drunk and sentences them all to death.
  • In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock demands that the court award him the Exact Words of the contract, thinking it will be in his favor and allow him to dispose of a hated enemy. Portia, disguised as a lawyer, asks him to choose mercy, but all in vain. After the judgment, she springs the trap — he can carve a pound of flesh from Antonio, but he can't take any blood. Shylock, understandably, tries to either accept a different offer or drop the suit, but both of those options are now Off the Table.

    Video Games 
  • Bioshock:
    • BioShock: In one of the Apocalyptic Logs, the speaker says that when intelligent, hard-working, and powerful individuals from the surface are invited to come to Rapture and help build a world of freedom from rules and regulations, they accept because they think they'll be captains of industry like they would be on the surface. They then find out that "someone needs to clean the toilets". It seems that nobody, not even Andrew Ryan, fully realised that if you have an entire city comprised solely of the human race's elite, those who could be great leaders when surrounded by normal people to do the menial work, won't be special any more when everyone is just as clever and driven as they are. Apparently, this unwelcome discovery contributed heavily to the people's rapid disillusionment with Rapture, and Ryan realising that there were people who could compete with him as equals helped spur an already self-centred narcissist past the Moral Event Horizon to stay on top.
    • This is also discussed in BioShock 2 where you find out the backstory of the railroad that connects the various parts of the city. Ryan and his supporters invested heavily in the railroad, but it was quickly upstaged by the invention of the bathysphere and the railroad went bankrupt. Ryan's followers never considered that their own investments could go sour and were confronted by the fact that they were about to find themselves broke and on the bottom of the economic and social system of Rapture. Faced with losing his power base, Ryan forced a bank bailout for the railroad, which saved the investors' fortunes but destroyed the savings of everyone else. Rapture's economy went into a downward spiral, which resulted in the civil war that wrecked the city.
    • While not as prevalent, the fallacy is also reflected in Bioshock Infinite regarding Comstock's flying paradise for the American People. Fink realized that none of the white, wealthy, religious patrons who'd flock to Comstock's city as "God's Kingdom" would be eager to do manual labor or menial tasks to maintain the 'heavenly' city, so he brought in "Cherubs for every chore", i.e. a massive foreign labor force that would eventually revolt and become the Vox Populi. This didn't end well for anybody.
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition:
    • One of your mage companions, Vivienne, is strongly in favor of reinstating the Circle of Magi, under the reasoning that mages must be imprisoned and controlled by Templars for their own safety and the safety of the general public, and that so long as the mages behave themselves they'll be allowed to live. However, she submits to none of those restrictions, being the Court Mage to the Orlesian court and essentially living the free life of a noble while claiming every other mage should be contained for their own good.
    • Toyed with regarding the Venatori, one of the main antagonist factions. Their leader the Elder One wants to enter the Fade and claim the power of a god and use it to reshape the world and restore the Tevinter Imperium to its glory days. The Bad Future you see in one quest line is not hospitable to human life, let alone Tevinter's restoration, and several of the Venatori seem to think they'll be made the sole ruler of the world for their service while the Elder One takes up the position of deity, rather than simply another slave. However, it's unclear how much they know of his plans and their actual effects.
    • In the Jaws of Hakkon DLC, the First Inquisitor Ameridan who was an elven mage was fine with his close personal friend Emperor Drakon leading religiously-motivated imperial expansionist campaigns against neighboring human kingdoms because Drakon assured him he and his descendants would always honor Dales elven sovereignty. When Ameridan learns that Drakon's own son annexed the Dales one short generation after he disappeared he's horrified, as he'd assumed that his people would be exempt from Drakon's imperial expansionism.
  • Dragon Quest VI: One optional area in the dreamworld is a "Groundhog Day" Loop of a king who decided to deal with the threat of the Archfiend by summoning an even bigger demon to kill it. The idea that they wouldn't remain in control past the first five seconds of the ritual didn't occur to them at all. If you actually fight and defeat this demon quickly enough, it turns out the plan wasn't as stupid as it seems: the demon cheerfully destroys the Big Bad in a humiliating Curb-Stomp Battle without taking any damage. The problem of course being that the demon will only respect anybody strong enough to beat him, and if you're strong enough to beat him that means you're also strong enough to Curb Stomp the Big Bad even without his help.
  • Most representatives of the Chaos alignment in Shin Megami Tensei support the creation of a world where Might Makes Right because they believe they're strong enough to end up on top in such a world. Many don't take it well when the protagonist defeats them in battle, thus proving themselves stronger.
    • Accentuated in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. The Chaos ending is the typical scenario, transforming Earth into a a world of survival of the fittest, though Humanity fails to take into account that demons are inherently stronger than them, so they're quickly wiped off the face of the earth. You're urged to take a plan B to do something similar, but by taking demons out of the equation.
  • Fallout: New Vegas: Vault 11's sadistic social experiment, revealed by their Overseer after they permanently sealed the exit, was to force the citizens into sacrificing one person a year or the vault would self-destruct. They unanimously decided to sacrifice their Overseer.
    • This turned into a tradition of sacrificing their elected overseer at the end of every year, under the premise that the one with all the power is / will become an asshole and should pay the price. Which turned corrupt as the majority formed voting blocs to target minorities and annoyances, and the Justice Bloc's leader took full advantage of their influence to bully anyone into submission with threats of getting them or their loved ones elected, then get them elected anyway. Except one pissed-off victim intentionally got herself elected in a landslide with a string of bloc serial killings, and used her overseer powers to make all future sacrifices selected at random, screwing the blocs over with their own voting power and belief in electing a Strawman Political to blame.
    • Which went horribly wrong as the formerly smug, untouchable Justice Bloc went berserk and launched an armed coup to reinstate their voting entitlements, sparking a bloody civil war that ended with the decimation of the vault. When the vault sang its final insult - unlocking the vault doors and praising the citizens for not sacrificing anyone that year (because they were too busy shooting each other) - four of the five survivors committed suicide from the realization that they only passed the Secret Test of Character by failing every other test of basic human decency. The sole survivor begged them to listen to the announcement that they could just leave, even after he personally insulted the Vault's AI and demanded it do their worst to try to make them listen to it (and oh, it did).
  • In Persona 5, many members of the Conspiracy are like this. They're fine with Shido causing people to have mental breakdowns as long as those breakdowns are people who are their rivals and enemies. However, few stop to think about the fact that his targets tend to be people who are dangerous to him. Such as people who know he's the one causing the breakdowns. They're far less happy when they realize (as they die) that they're on the chopping block as well.
  • This tends to be a problem with online trading in the Pokémon games. Players will often put up a freshly-caught and untrained Mon for offer while demanding you give them legendaries or max-levels in return, a trade they would've never accepted if made by someone else. The addition of Wonder Trading, in which you trade Pokémon with a random player without knowing what you're going to get, has only made this worse, with everyone assuming THEY will be the one of the lucky ones.
  • Neverwinter Nights 2: The Faceless Man, Big Bad of the Mask Of The Betrayer expansion, was once Akachi, the high priest of the dead god Myrkul, until he renounced his devotion to Myrkul and tried to storm the afterlife to liberate his wife's soul from the Wall of the Faithless. It sounds noble, and to an extent it was, but it is pointed out that Akachi had been gleefully condemning souls to the Wall for decades before his wife ended up there. He knew full well what Myrkul was doing (and what he was doing in Myrkul's service), as well as how corrupt the whole system was; he just didn't care until that corrupt system affected him and someone he cared about.
  • The premise of Sea Salt. A seaside town has prospered by making a deal with Dagon. The game opens with the Archbishop praying to Dagon to find out which people need to be sacrificed for continued blessing. As soon as his own name is mentioned, he goes from happy obedience to stammering excuses about how he's too important. It's up to the player to command Dagon's minions and collect the payment the hard way.
  • The plot of Devil May Cry 5 is kicked off by Vergil's decision to split himself into his human and demon halves. He discovers seconds later that he is not The Unfettered demon Urizen but the helpless human V and spends most of the rest of the game trying to find someone powerful enough to defeat Urizen so they can reunite.
  • Silent Hill 3: There's a notebook in the hospital that envisions the writer (most likely Leonard Wolf), as some righteous crusader defending the world from all the "unnecessary people" in it. As Heather reads the journal, she scornfully notes that she'd like to meet the lunatic who wrote it and ask if they think they're "one of the necessary ones".

    Visual Novels 
  • Several of the debates in Exile Election involve this. For instance, Miori's debate revolves around the concept of a world where everyone's abilities are translated into stats, with this information being widely known. Most of her supporters naturally believe that their stats would be high enough that they'll be recognized as special and be treated accordingly. Ironically, Miori believes the exact opposite. She thinks her stats would be low enough that she'd be dismissed as worthless, and everyone would leave her alone and stop expecting anything from her.

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 
  • A thread on's forum concluded that of various fictional worlds, Star Trek's United Federation of Planets is probably the best one to live in, on grounds that, since you're far more likely to be some random average guy than one of the heroes of The 'Verse, the Federation's standard of living has a lot to recommend it.
  • Lampooned in a widely-shared tweet by Adrian Bott:
    "I never thought leopards would eat MY face," sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People's Faces Party.
This quote serves as the inspiration for the Reddit subreddit r/LeopardsAteMyFace, which documents several posts about this occurring in real life, as well as the "Leopards Eating People's Faces" Party meme.
  • Played With in this article for The Onion, where a man expresses his desire to see all Mexicans deported from the United States, despite his love of Mexican food and being on good terms with all of the Mexicans that he knows.
    "But the rest of you, the ones I don't know personally, I won't miss you at all."

    Western Animation 
  • The Dragon Prince: When King Harrow was crowned, he told his wife about a dream he had where Lady Justice came to him and offered him a gift. He took her blindfold, and she explained how he should try to imagine he was not born with the wealth or position he has, or even the culture or skin color. Later in the episode, he tries to make good on this promise by offering supplies to a nearby kingdom suffering a famine — they don't have much to spare, so the same amount of people will starve, but half of them will be from his kingdom instead of all from his ally. However, he stumbles a bit when his court wizard offers him an alternative; kill a powerful magical creature and use its heart to bring fertility to the land. His wife points out that they don't even know if the creature is intelligent. They ultimately go through with it and it works, but it kicks off a Cycle of Revenge that results in Harrow's wife dead, the queens of the allied kingdom dead, himself dead years later, and brings the land within inches of war.
  • In the Family Guy episode "Padre de Familia", Peter, driven by Patriotic Fervor, demands that his company institute a policy of only hiring American citizens in order to weed out illegal immigrant workers. When the policy is passed, he approaches his mother to ask for a copy of his birth certificate, only for her to reveal that she was across the border at the time of his birth, and he was born in Mexico... and since he can't provide a birth certificate that demonstrates his citizenship of the USA, he gets fired as a result of the policy he helped implement.
  • Sonic Boom: In the episode "Mister Eggman", Eggman signs up for the class of the Sadist Teacher Professor Kingsford and is eager to see who the "goat" - the student turned into the professor's Butt-Monkey - will be, not realizing that as one of his students, he's just as vulnerable to getting that position himself. Sure enough, it's Eggman who ends up being the goat.
  • Many Tom and Jerry shorts have Jerry seeming to favor having an Angry Guard Dog around since it usually gets Tom off his back and often getting kicks from watching a cat getting chased and tormented by the larger beast. Of course, though, there are a few shorts where "said dog" doesn't just settle on the cat but then shows every bit of animosity on wanting to do the same to the mouse. Thus, Jerry then finds himself teaming up with Tom, with the two of them having to work together in order to deal with an aggressive and large canine hellbent on chomping them both.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Original Position Gambit


Haman's idea

Lord Haman thinks he's got a big reward coming

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / OriginalPositionFallacy

Media sources: