Follow TV Tropes


Secretly Selfish

Go To

"You must not be so foolish as to believe yourself worthy of salvation. You lost people dear to you and wish for their happiness. Excellent. Splendid, indeed. But why do you sully the purity of your desire by not thinking solely of them? There is no bliss to be received from narcissism. Do you not see, Leonhart? You only seek the happiness you would gain by being at their side. Why go through all this trouble when you could simply go and embrace your own image in the mirror? You wish for only your own happiness. Only for yourself to be loved. You cannot deny your narcissistic disposition."
Valeria Trifa, Dies Irae

A character known for noble deeds, selfless sacrifices and a lifetime of service is normally The Ace, The Hero, or a Messianic Archetype. They seem to have an extra quality that makes them give of themselves without a second thought. However, occasionally a nasty spanner is thrown in the works, and the hero is forced to question their fundamental motives: are his/her good deeds really performed for the benefit of others... or, deep down, are they doing these things for themselves, without even realizing it?

This challenge usually comes from a third party — often someone with a grudge against the hero, if not an outright villain. They argue that if the hero is going about their life without being miserable, or giving up absolutely everything, then they aren't really being good: they're just giving what they can afford to give and reaping the benefits of being "a good person". This antagonist may have a point... or could just be trying to undermine the do-gooder's confidence.

The usual "selfish" motive offered is usually one of reputation or identity: doing these altruistic or self-sacrificing things fills a void for the person doing them. If someone or something comes along that would remove that burden from their shoulders, they panic — because who are they if not the Love Martyr or The Caretaker? Alternatively, being good may reap social rewards, making their good deeds a transaction rather than a gift.

The other common argument is that Good Feels Good: the person accusing them of being Secretly Selfish will point out that since good feels good, it has a built-in reward system. Therefore, you're no different from the villain, who gets the same high from committing crimes. This is a common argument against someone who is preachy and self-righteous characters, who are only pretending just to make themselves look good, rather than genuine belief.

Even if the hero reluctantly admits that they get something out of the deal, being Secretly Selfish does not make a character bad, just plausibly flawed, and it's possible for Character Development to make a character become more genuinely selfless.

However, there is definitely a truly selfish variation. In these cases, the character is usually outright lying to themselves about their motives, and in need of a calling out. Such characters tend to be Innocently Insensitive, and unaware of the negative effects of their selfishness on others. They are prone to Condescending Compassion, so what they consider genuine kindness is actually insulting or self-aggrandizing. This trope is what happens when they get an unpleasant (but needed) Wake-Up Call.

Cynical works will agree that yes, there is no such thing as a completely altruistic person and all people are selfish in one way or another — in fact, the belief that all people are selfish is the very core of cynicism. An idealistic work will admonish such a way of thinking as bad people trying to drag good ones down to their level. Characters who definitely have, and know about, their unscrupulous ulterior motives are not Secretly Selfish - they're A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. On the other hand, a more pragmatically good hero is more comfortable with the idea of Enlightened Self-Interest, and less inclined to have a moral meltdown. The Selfless Wish and Secretly Selfish tropes usually serve to deconstruct each other: the existence of one in a fictional universe usually "weakens" the concept of the other. The Straw Hypocrite is the cousin trope, where the hypocrite is selfishly not practicing on what they are preaching. A villain who claims to be doing things for the greater good and turns out to be this trope is likely a Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist.


    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 
  • Many a superhero (especially Thou Shalt Not Kill-types) can be accused of this when their enemies rack up increasingly massive body counts yet the heroes refuse to kill them because it would be against their principles.
    • Following the Maximum Carnage storyline (where the supervillain Carnage led a gang of like-minded psychos and killers on a merry massacre of Manhattan), a fan letter wondered if Spider-Man's refusal to kill even a irredeemable monster like Carnage (who was a serial killer even before gaining his symbiote costume) would've held up if his own loved ones like Mary-Jane or Aunt May had wound up as victims.
    • The most infamous example is of course Batman and The Joker. While the Caped Crusader's fear that he'd find it difficult to stop killing criminals if he ever started is understandable, it's harder to sympathize when the Joker does something particularly monstrous like murdering children.
    • A complicated version shows up in a Punisher/Daredevil crossover. Attorney Matt Murdock (secretly Daredevil) tries to get one criminal (a Mafiya boss named Antonov)'s trial held in Texas rather than New York obstensively because Antonov could simply terrify witnesses away. Frank Castle (The Punisher) (who doesn't know who Daredevil really is) argues with Daredevil that Murdock has much simpler motives: Texas has the death penalty, New York doesn't, Murdock just wants to see the man dead without getting his hands dirty. Daredevil is quite pissed at the accusation, especially since his sidekick isn't far from agreeing because Antonov is trying to get them all killed, even the superheroes trying to protect him from Frank.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: During the Season 9 comics, Willow becomes obsessed with finding a way to restore magic to Earth, convinced that the world is dying without magic and needs it to survive. Over the course of the Willow: Wonderland miniseries, she eventually realizes and confesses that she actually just wanted magic back so she could feel powerful again.
    Willow: ...Maybe just a couple of sads. My friends need me. At least, I keep telling myself they need me. The truth is... when I think about now, they seemed to be doing fine. I'm the one who was falling apart. Without magic, I'm back to being part hacker, part hostage, while my superpeeps kick evil's butt. I was so convinced the world needed magic. That life on Earth is fundamentally missing something. But maybe... maybe it was just me.
  • The Plutonian from Irredeemable is this combined with Love Hungry. He ultimately became a superhero to fulfill his deep-seated desire for love and acceptance (resulting from a Dark and Troubled Past) coupled with an intense martyr complex imposed on him by his foster parents.
  • The Killing Joke reveals that the Joker himself suffers from this trope, albeit in a twisted way. At first, it seems like he truly believes that everyone on Earth is just "one bad day" away from going completely insane. He tries to prove it by shooting and paralyzing Barbara Gordon, taking pictures of her nude body (and possibly doing worse), then kidnapping her father James and forcing him through a funhouse ride with the photographs disturbingly enlarged. He claims it's all proof of his theory that Humans Are Bastards - but Batman then tells him that, while Gordon is understandably shaken up and deeply sickened, he has not lost his mind or sense of morality, to the point of insisting that the Dark Knight take the Joker in "by the book" instead of getting revenge. Batman then challenges the Joker by saying that his entire philosophy and subsequent mad crusade is nothing but a cheap attempt to justify his own failure to keep it together:
    Batman: So many ordinary people don't always crack. Maybe there isn't any need to crawl under a rock with all the other slimy things when trouble hits. was just you, all the time.
  • Cinder of Deathstroke's fake Titans was a sexual assault survivor turned serial killer of rapists and child molesters. At first glance these goals seem noble if bloodthirsty, but it becomes readily apparent that she's a miserable woman looking for to vent her rage on the world and because she's deeply suicidal yet her powers make her functionally immortal. She's got no problem killing innocent people to reach high profile targets, prefers to act as though admitting she's horrible still gives her the moral high ground, and ends up finally going out as a martyr when given the opportunity to kill herself like she's always wanted.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • The Hobbit: Although Thorin Oakenshield has a completely rightful claim on the Lonely Mountain and its treasure, and he has a very justified grudge against the dragon Smaug for massacring his people and robbing them of their kingdom and wealth; as Thorin gets closer to the mountain and its treasure, it becomes increasingly clear that Bard, Thranduil and Smaug are not wrong when they unfavorably compare Thorin to his late grandfather, who went mad with Gold Fever, and accuse Thorin of being motivated by the same selfish greed and pride underneath it all. Smaug takes it a step further by trying to convince Bilbo that Thorin is a craven bastard who values the treasure more than Bilbo's life and only hired Bilbo as a means to an end. In the final film, Thorin proves all his critics right when, after unintentionally provoking Smaug's wrath which the Lakemen who've helped him receive in his stead, Thorin almost-fully succumbs to Gold Fever. He callously turns away the suffering Lakemen; outright tries to murder his friend for getting between him and his treasure, and lets everyone else including his kin die fighting for him while he hides away with the treasure, at which point even his most staunchly-loyal dwarf allies have to call him out. Thanks to all the call-outs, Thorin eventually comes back from the brink a better person than before.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Charmed (1998): One episode has the sisters fall under the influence of magic that amplifies the deadly sin they're most attuned to. Prue's is pride, which causes her to run around being even more heroic than usual. In the end, Piper, Phoebe, and Leo are freed by committing a selfless act. Prue is chagrined that after all the selfless acts she performed, including a Heroic Sacrifice, she still needed to be freed by outside intervention. Piper points out that there is no truly selfless act in pride, because her actual motivation was to prove how great she was, with the lives saved more of a fringe benefit.
  • Done a lot in Desperate Housewives, especially Susan.
    • In Season Two she lies to Mike about paying his biological son, Zach to go away to Utah so he wouldn't get in the way of her relationship (and to keep him away from Julie), but pretends to keep searching for him anyway to look good in front of Mike. Edie calls her out on it.
    • In Season Four, Susan immediately manages to rub her new neighbours the wrong way, so her solution is to kidnap their dog and then pretend to "find" him to make them like her. Naturally this all goes wrong and they hate her more than ever. Mike even lampshades this - Susan wasn't trying to be a good person, she just can't stand it when people don't like her.
  • In the Friends episode "The One Where Phoebe hates PBS", Joey and Phoebe's subplot revolves around an argument they have. Joey posits that there is no such thing as a truly selfless good deed because the good deed doer always wants or expects something in return - even if it's nothing more than feeling good about doing good. Phoebe spends the episode trying to prove him wrong and failing every time; her good deeds are either rewarded in a way that makes her feel good or, in the case of letting a bee sting her to allow "him"note  to look tough in front of the other bees, actually bad deeds (Joey tells Phoebe the bee probably died after stinging her).
  • It's revealed in The Good Place that good actions and deeds can be negated if they're performed for these reasons. Hence why Tahani is actually in the Bad Place - she did a lot of charitable things, but only because she wanted the attention it would bring her (as well as to compete against her Always Someone Better sister).
  • In House, the titular Dr. House constantly accuses Wilson of this; only being so caring for his patients because it's the only thing that makes him feel good about himself. House, being House, seems to believe this to be true of all altruistic actions.
  • Inverted with Earl from My Name Is Earl. He starts his to-do list of good deeds to catalogue every bad thing he's done. He plans to make up for each one to earn positive karma so good things will happen to him — a basically selfish motive. However, his actions cause him to become a genuinely better person anyway.
  • Discussed in Once Upon a Time. Regina, now The Atoner, at one point wonders, if she's doing good in an effort to redeem herself, is she actually doing good?
  • In the Roseanne episode "Don't Make Me Over," Becky and Darlene treat Roseanne to a day at the spa for Mother's Day. Roseanne thinks that they're doing it out of the kindness of their hearts, but then Becky and Darlene reveal that they were just trying to butter Roseanne up so she'll let them go to a concert for the weekend. Roseanne is not too happy about this, and neither is Dan, who punishes his daughters by making them spend the weekend with their grandparents. They probably learned from her: Roseanne's Tough Love approach can come across as simply wanting others to suffer as much as she has, coming from an abusive home.
  • Vic Mackey from The Shield insists his crimes are motivated by both his desire to support his family and two autistic children and the need to keep the drug trade under control in Farmington. However, it becomes increasingly clear that Vic is motivated by his own greed and entitlement. During one of his few moments of total honesty with both himself and the viewer, he admits he only did it because it was easy and he felt he deserved a reward.

    Multiple Media 
  • MonsterVerse:
    • Dr. Emma Russell in Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a villainous, Well-Intentioned Extremist case, who is working with paramilitary eco-terrorists to set the Titans loose on the world (and let millions of people die in the initial chaos) because she believes it's the only way to save the world from a manmade ecological collapse which will wipe out all of humanity, and because the government were about to try exterminating the Titans in their sleep (thereby cutting off the Earth's only chance at being replenished if they were to succeed) before Emma acted. Emma has just enough standards and genuine proven points behind her cause to avoid crossing into being a Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist. All of that having been said, it's heavily implied that underneath Emma's well intentions and justifications for her agenda, she's really using her unresolved grief over her son's death to lash out against the world, because she blames the human race at large for triggering the Titan attack which killed him via our ecologically-destructive ways; and everyone in the cast except Emma herself seems to be all too aware of this once her actions come to light. Both Mark and Madison call Emma out, and that (combined with other factors) eventually forces Emma into a Heel Realization.
    • Jerkass Woobie Mark Russell overall shows multiple signs of thinking more about his own feelings than about those of his loved ones or his son's memory. In the Godzilla vs. Kong official novelization, after he tries to guilt-trip Madison into obeying him in an attempt to keep her away from Titan-related danger, she calls out his oppressive and authoritarian conduct as a parent. Mark is convincing himself that he's keeping Madison safe by ordering her around and helicoptering her with his sister's help, and that her being mad at him for it is a worthwhile price; but Madison points out that he's really putting his own fear of losing his surviving daughter ahead of any consideration for her emotional needs or her own feelings, and he'd rather feel sorry for himself than consider the possibility that his shoddy parenting methods are going to either stifle his highly-capable daughter's growth and potential or just push her away from him all over again. Worse yet, it takes finding out that his authoritarianism and patronizing of Madison only pushed her to strike out on her own for Mark to even take Madison's point seriously.

    Myths and Religion 
  • The Bible provides a crystal clear order to not do this trope, and instead do good deeds while keeping concern for those of whom are benefiting from these good deeds of yours, not solely to make yourself look great.
    Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves: do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interest of others (Philippians 2:3-4)
    • Meanwhile Paul in the Epistle to the Romans argues that this is part of the reason why everyone needs Jesus; no-one can do good unselfishly, and since God's standard is perfection that basically puts everyone in the same boat.

  • In Gypsy, Rose is the ultimate Stage Mom, who insists that her dream of making her daughters into stars, and every ruthless thing she does to achieve that dream, is all for her daughters. Only at the end does she finally admit, both to her daughter Louise and to herself, that she really did it all for herself because she wanted to be noticed and missed her own chance to go into show business.
  • This is the Twist Ending of The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill. The patrons of Harry's saloon love to talk about their big plans for the future, or "pipe dreams." When main character Hickey shows up, he seems oddly intent on forcing them to attempt to achieve those dreams, even though they're all doomed to failure. When everyone comes back shattered and depressed, Hickey claims that he did them all a favor, as they can now finally move on with their lives. It's then revealed, via a Motive Rant, that Hickey's actual motivation is his wife, who refuses to divorce or stop loving him despite his repeated infidelities, as she has never stopped believing in her own pipe dream that he is a decent person who will someday reciprocate—which drove Hickey to such fury that he murdered her. His desperate attempts to force other people to also give up their pipe dreams is simply an attempt to shift his own guilt: if everyone's dreams are meaningless, then he was right to kill her.
  • The Mrs. Hawking series has this as a central theme. Mary Stone joins Victoria Hawking's crusade for women as part of a desire to make something of her life, while Victoria's nephew Nathaniel joins in because he wants to be special. Interestingly, though, both Mary and Nathaniel gradually grow out of this trope and start helping women because it's genuinely the right thing to do, while Victoria herself slides toward increased selfishness. We later learn that even her initial crusade was the result of this trope: the first "problem" she ever faced was helping a starving village in Singapore receive food. Others pointed out that there were simple but effective ways to do it, but Victoria insisted on pulling off a grand scheme just because she could, hinting that it wasn't enough for her to only do good deeds—it had to be on her terms, exactly as she wanted.
  • Downplayed in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It's apparent from the beginning of the musical that Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney's Psycho Supporter, is a self-serving woman, and she's largely helping him in his revenge plot to both enrich her meat pie business by turning his victims into the filling and make Sweeney return her unrequited love, despite the fact that the barber only cares for Lucy, his now-dead wife. But the end of the musical reveals just how selfish Mrs. Lovett truly is: it turns out Lucy isn't dead, just driven insane by her rape and abandonment, and Mrs. Lovett knew it, but deliberately made her statement about the situation as vague as possible—"She poisoned herself...arsenic from the apothecary on the corner"—as part of her scheme. And Sweeney only finds out about all of this after he's inadvertently killed Lucy. When Mrs. Lovett uses Exact Words to defend herself—"No, no, not lied at all! No, I never lied! Said she took the poison—she did—never said that she died!"—it's suddenly apparent that she's downright sociopathic, because she doesn't care about anyone or anything beyond her own wants. It's not for nothing that Stephen Sondheim himself said that Mrs. Lovett is the true villain of the piece.
  • Wicked: Elpheba wonders aloud about this during her breakdown in "No Good Deed." Instead of an illuminating insight, it only adds to the deluge of despair that causes her to decide Then Let Me Be Evil.
    … One question haunts and hurts
    Too much, too much to mention
    Was I really seeking good
    Or just seeking attention?

    Visual Novels 
  • Mikan Tsumiki in Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. She's known as the Ultimate Nurse due to her incredible wealth of knowledge and skill in health care. However, during one of her free time events, she reveals the reason she became a nurse because she realized that sick and injured people are weaker than her. She does genuinely enjoy helping people, but she also enjoys the power that comes from their complete dependence upon her. Given her history of being severely bullied and abused since childhood, this isn't all that surprising. In fact, she got so good at treating wounds because of how often she had to treat her own, since no one else would help her.
  • Kei Sakurai from Dies Irae. She wants to use the Golden Alchemy offered by Reinhard to resurrect her parental figures, Beatrice, as well as her own brother, Kai. Of course, doing so involves the slaughter of an endless number of innocent and not so innocent people, yet Kei has driven herself to believe that, since she thinks she is doing it for someone else, her cause is just and that she is some sort of tragic anti hero/villain driven to extremism due to factors outside of her control. Several characters call her out on this, yet the words of Trifa are those that end up cutting the deepest as he gets right to the root of it all, correctly claiming that she is not doing it for them, but rather for herself in order to regain the family she lost, everyone else be damned.
  • Shirou Emiya from Fate/stay night spends the opening of the visual novel (and the first of its three alternate paths) chasing the ideal of becoming the 'Superhero who saves everyone'. In the "Unlimited Blade Works" route, Archer points out that Shirou's ideals aren't his own: Much like Shirou's Projection Magic produces copies of other people's works, Shirou's ideals are a copy of someone else's ideals which he selfishly chases because Shirou is hollow inside and has no self-made convictions of his own. Shirou responds that the ideal itself is still good and worth fighting for and Shirou can make it his own, even if he originally borrowed it from someone else without understanding it: A copy of something can supersede the original work, and selfishly chasing the ideal of selfishness can still be a good thing. Archer (who himself chased the same ideal to its tragic conclusion) can't really disagree.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY:
    • While Raven initially appears to be a powerful Social Darwinist, her actions in Volume 5 show that she's quite a self-absorbed, pretentious Jerkass who always puts herself above her family and the tribe's value. Raven is even willing to risk the lives of her own brother and Team RWBY to obtain the Relic of Knowledge in order to save her own skin. However, she fails to take into account that she'll be on Salem's hit-list, and once she's made aware of this, she flees, allowing Yang to take the Relic and the future heat from Salem.
    • Ironwood is genuinely dedicated to thwarting Salem however he can, but there's also an implication that he's just as motivated by a desire to avoid admitting his own fears and failings and validate his own beliefs as he is by saving people. This part of him becomes increasingly stronger throughout the series, and by the end of Volume 7, he shows no discomfort in trying to murder those who do not agree with what he's doing. In Volume 8, he outright admits in his fight against Winter that he desperately seeks the validation from others for his horrific actions, to be seen as "doing things for the greater good". Winter calls him out on this selfishness, noting that all he's really done is throw other people's lives away to try to benefit from them for himself.
    • When Ozpin asks Hazel if he knows why Salem recruited him, Hazel tells him exactly why he's following her. Ozpin points out that supporting someone as monstrous as Salem isn't acting in the name of justice, it's acting for himself because Salem made him believe that taking out his rage on Ozpin would help him. He then asks Hazel if it's helped.

  • Megan Kearney's Beauty and the Beast: Although Beauty's desire to save her father from the Beast was sincere, the main reason she took his place as Beast's prisoner was because she wanted to be useful to her family. She compared herself unfavourably to her older sisters, who also did most of the housework, thus saw herself as a burden to her family. When she returns,her father makes her see how much her sacrifice hurt them.
  • Mob Psycho 100: The final arc centers on this question, as it's revealed that ???% isn't a separate entity living inside Shigeo, but rather his id, which is also the ultimate source of his power. Sick of being used yet ignored for the sake of people he believes only accept the more palatable "Mob" and what he can do for them, ???% goes on a rampage, lashes out at every friend Shigeo has ever harbored uncharitable thoughts towards or gets in his way, and threatens to do away with all of Shigeo's efforts to better himself in order to prove that no one would accept him for what he truly is and that he can only rely on himself in the end. It's only when Reigen weathers his rampage to confess his own unsavory "hidden side" and apologize for using Shigeo while never truly understanding everything he was going through that ???% backs down and willingly integrates with "Mob" instead of destroying him.
  • The Pizza Delivery Man and the Gold Palace:
    • Woo-won. He notes that on days he felt small he would intentionally go out of his way to be kind and generous to others, feeling less insignificant if they responded with joy. He's still thoroughly a Nice Guy, but this habit made his difficult life more bearable.
    • Seo-an. He offers to help Woo-won with his work after his arm is broken and tries get closer to him after his therapist suggests he get closer to him to treat his anxiety. His motivation to help Woo-won gradually becomes more than just that.
  • Poppy O'Possum: Queen Kit Darling claims that her advocacy on behalf of marginalized opossums is motivated by the atrocities she saw in Sorvail during a conflict called "The Backlash". This is not untrue, but when pressed she admits that she's also partly motivated by the simple fact that she can only see the world in terms of its atomic structure; but opossums, being magic nullifiers, are unaffected by this power, and she can see them normally. "It's hard not to empathize with someone when they're all you can see." Poppy doesn't think any less of her for it: "A good thing done for selfish reasons isn't really any less of a good thing. Even if you're helping someone out just to feel better about yourself, maybe that's good enough, sometimes."
  • Sleepless Domain: This is discussed when the members of the Power Training Club confront Cassidy, after the latter attacks Undine physically and accuses her of being responsible for the death of her teammates. She tries to justify her actions as protecting Heartful Punch and the rest of the club; however, Bud believes that her real problem is that HP is spending more time with the new girl, and that Cassidy was just trying to use these vague suspicions as a cover to vent her jealousy.