Sometimes, there is no easy choice to make. No matter what you do, something is going to go badly for someone. The choice of who to save and who to let die often falls on The Hero, and when it does, there's only one choice to make. Whether he has to save the world, the country, or the city, he almost always has to let go of his best friend or Love Interest in the process. However, this trope is averted nearly as often as it's played straight, especially among Anti Heroes who are willing to screw over the whole world for the ones they love.
Of course, it isn't always The Hero who has to make the decision. Monarchs or generals may be forced to sacrifice large numbers of troops or citizens "for the Greater Good", and The Chains of Commanding sit heavily on them. Well Intentioned Extremists and Knight Templars often use this as a justification for their actions; they're more than willing to kill dozens if they think it will save thousands.
In ethical philosophy, this is an important tenet of Utilitarianism (which is kind of present on this wiki as Ethical Hedonism), which considers the best action as the one that maximizes well-being - if more information is required, please Google J. S. Mill or see the "trolley problem" in the Real Life section below for an example of this.
Keep in mind, "many" and "few" are relative. The most important part is just that someone has to be sacrificed to save significantly more. Although it is an old concept, the phrase itself is much Newer Than They Think, the Trope Namer being The Wrath of Khan.
Compare Heroic Sacrifice, Cold Equation, Sadistic Choice, and Restricted Rescue Operation. If some member of a group needs to make the sacrifice, the question of Who Will Bell the Cat? arises. If someone is being asked to sacrifice themselves, this is likely to be What Is One Man's Life in Comparison?. If a group of heroes argues over who gets to make the sacrifice, then you have More Hero Than Thou or More Expendable Than You. For the more morally gray versions, compare Utopia Justifies the Means, Totalitarian Utilitarian, and A Million Is a Statistic. A catchphrase of every other Hive Mind.
The Small Steps Hero either doesn't believe in this or finds it inseparable from everyday acts of kindness. An Ideal Hero will Take a Third Option. See also Friend or Idol Decision. When the sacrifice turns out to have been inadequate, or the wrong people are sacrificed through misunderstanding or inadequate information, My God, What Have I Done? is the usual reaction.
Contrast Social Darwinist, a view which favors the (more "worthy/chosen") few and ignores the rest.
- Gut-wrenching example in Attack on Titan. When Wall Maria is abandoned, there are too many refugees to feed and the food supplies look grim. The government's solution is to draft 250,000 people (20% of the population) to reclaim the lost territory from the Titans; only a handful survive. Pixis doesn't mince words about this and goes further to say that if Wall Rose falls, this time over 50% of the remaining humans are going to be sent to die.
- This is the justification that commanders use in this series when they sacrifice their troops (except for the ones that are just plain Dirty Cowards).
- A recurring theme in many of Gen Urobuchi's works:
- Discussed in Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Incubators defend their decisions to use the souls of magical girls tortured to the point of absolute despair to prevent Universal Entropy on the basis of humans similarly using cattle in order to eat. Also, the Incubators, by interfering in human affairs, have brought Civilization and technology to the human species at the expense of a few magical girls sacrificing themselves. In other words, the needs of both Humans and Incubators outweigh the needs of a Magical Girl. In the end, Madoka, while disgusted at the callousness of the Incubators, accepted their logic, and decided to sacrifice herself to absorb all Magical Girls' despair at every point in space and time in order to save them yet allowing the benefits given by the Incubators to influence humanity. A win-win scenario on the expense of Madoka's very own existence. The Puella Magi Wiki provided an Analysis of Madoka and the Utilitarian philosophy.
- Shirou Emiya's father, Kiritsugu, possessed this principle and we get to see it in action in the prequel, Fate/Zero. The contradiction in this ideal is also exposed by the corrupted Grail when he gets shown an illusion where he has to save either the many or the few until he has killed 498 people for his two most beloved people. His alternate solution was to get access to a perfect, omnipotent Reality Warper wish-granting artifact to save everyone. Unfortunately for him, even if the Grail hadn't been corrupted, it wouldn't have helped because the Grail is a Literal Genie that can only provide the power to the methodology of Kiritsugu's choice, not a perfect omnipotent thing with all the answers.
- He is noted to have gone soft after joining the Einzbern family. Early in the War he bombs a hotel to kill an enemy Master but calls in a bomb threat first. In the past, he would have just killed everyone in the building to be absolutely certain his target died too. Civilian casualties weren't a concern for him, because so long as he killed his target he was saving more people in the long term.
- The Sibyl System in Psycho-Pass falls into this. The Sibyl System consists of brains of criminally asymptomatic individuals that want to "perfect" society. The ideal society that the Sibyl System wanted to create involves an isolationist Japan where society is focused on pleasure and happiness. However, this involves the elimination of individuality and sacrificing undesirables from political critics, emotionally unstable individuals, students, teachers, and even farmers to create their perfect society. Akane does not like how the Sibyl System was operating (particularly the idea of killing people to protect others) once she found out the Awful Truth, but she still continues to work with the system because she believes that there is a better alternative to maintaining society while bringing order and justice at the same time.
- However, according to Touma, he exposes the irony on the Sibyl System's beliefs, as their members highly value their own unique individuality over the average citizen as they believe that they are morally, mentally, and philosophically superior to everyone else, and thus they are more fit to rule society. Yet, for their value of uniqueness, they don't see the irony of being Hive Mind, thus showing the irony that the Sibyl System only benefits their members and not everyone else.
- Sailor Moon's refusal to do this in the S series is what enraged Uranus and Neptune near the end, as Sailor Moon couldn't stand sacrificing Hotaru to save the world (she didn't have to, but the conflict of one person vs. the world was brought up at least somewhat).
- A recurring theme in Final Fantasy: Lost Stranger is how much is one life worth versus that of the many, and if it's worth risking many lives to save one. For most part, Shogo defies with this notion after the Heroic Sacrifice of his sister, always trying to Take a Third Option to save as many people as he can even if it means risking his own life.
- Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann:
- Using this trope as a mantra is why Simon is happy with the series ending despite the heart-rendingly painful price he had to pay to save the universe. It perfectly shows how strong and heroic Simon has become. It's also extremely Japanese.
- Rossiu ends up following this trope. In the village where he grew up, the priest was willing to keep to the strict population limit of 50 by any means necesary, even exiling people to almost certain death on the surface if they ended up with too many. After the Time Skip, Rossiu was willing to sentence his long-time friend Simon to death as a scapegoat to appease the masses, and take a small fraction of humanity into space and leave everyone else to die in order to avoid humanity's extinction.
- In Fate/kaleid liner PRISMA☆ILLYA, the Ainsworth family is willing to trade the life of Miyu to save the human race. Interestingly, Kiritsugu, who would sacrifice the few to save the many, Kuro, the wielder of the Archer card who carries Kiritsugu's beliefs, and Shirou, whose original philosophy was to save everyone, chose to save the ones they loved at the expense of others. Only Illya decides that she wants to save everyone.
- Mobile Suit Gundam Wing is capped off by Zechs Merquise and Treize Khushrenada trying to bring world peace by starting a war so utterly horrifying and pointless that humanity will gladly move to the negotiating table. Both are perfectly fine with being Silent Scapegoats for this cause, but it still weighs on them; at one point Treize utterly averts A Million Is a Statistic by giving the exact number of people who have died so far and says he also knows the names of everyone who has died in his service. Unfortunately, the lesson doesn't quite take until The Movie, where Relena (and, in the Special Edition, Dorothy) finally get the civilians to realize that they can't just Hold Out for a Hero forever.
- In One Piece, this is the philosophy of the Marines who pursue Absolute Justice. Though this does become quite hypocritical of them when they decide what "many" these needs help. Such as destroying a battleship filled with 1000 marines just to kill 1 pirate and even killing a marine who dares question the order.
- Black Bullet: Rentaro Satomi's For Happiness ethics have an interesting variation of "The happiness for others outweigh the happiness of myself." Apparently, this bites him in the ass when he was accused of murder in volumes 5 and 6.
- Saiyuki deliberately defies this as being selfish jerks is essential for their success, because this way they have a chance to survive their mission.
- The most blatant example occurs in Hakkai's backstory, when he goes completely insane after his sister is sacrificed to the local demon clan for the sake of saving the village, murders half the villagers along with most of the demon clan, only to witness her commit suicide. One of the survivors points out that he basically ruined everyone's lives for the sake of his own happiness, and while the reader is clearly not supposed to sympathize with the character, the villagers' actual justification (not wanting to give up their own daughters, choosing an orphan instead and claiming that orphans would never understand how they feel anyway) doesn't exactly sound convincing in the context, either.
- In Saiyuki Reload, Sanzo and company stop in a town that is said to be protected from demons thanks to a barrier spell maintained by the local priest — raising some questions, since Sanzo's three "servants" happen to be demons themselves, which the priest seemingly couldn't even tell despite Goku and Hakkai wearing Power Limiters and Gojyo having the typical crimson hair of a half-demon. It quickly turns out that the barrier is a hoax, and the priest kept sacrificing unwitting travelers to the nearby pack of demons in exchange for the demons staying out of the town — because, in the priest's opinion, no local would ever start thinking about how exactly they're protected as long as they're safe. Then the townspeople are revealed to be aware of the scheme, to the priest's utter shock — but they really do not mind as long as they're safe. Sanzo's team is completely disgusted by their attitude since they apparently didn't even consider the alternative of fighting the demons off.
- This was the basis of Admiral Graham's plan in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's. He was going to freeze Hayate for all eternity to stop the cycle of the Book of Darkness destroying planets, despite the fact that she had never done anything wrong.
- Dr. Marcoh in Fullmetal Alchemist is forced to work for the Big Bad or they'll destroy the village he lives in. Envy mocks him afterwards over the fact they plan to wipe out the entire country so it would have been smarter for him to sacrifice the village.
- Discussed in World Trigger, between Chika and her mentor Reiji. At one point Reiji reveals that his father was a rescue worker, but died to save a child's life. Chika attempts to console him, stating that he was able to get the child out alive, but Reiji points out that he could have saved more people if he had survived. His father even inspired Reiji to follow the ideal that rescuers who don't return alive fail.
- In Vinland Saga, Canute uses this trope as defense for his actions. By appropriating land by force, he gains wealth. Through wealth, he can attract Vikings. By attracting Vikings, he can select who they fight, or encourage them to settle his lands in peace. By directing and settling Vikings, he saves the rest of the world from their predations.
- In Bokurano, Kodama follows a particularly twisted form of this trope- to him, it's fine if 10,000 or more civilians die in his battle with the enemy robot as long as he wins, thereby saving all 10 billion people on the planet (with the bonus being that the property damage will create work for his father's company). The other pilots call him out on this, saying that every life has value (not to mention that most of the casualties were probably avoidable), but to no avail.
- Undefeated Bahamut Chronicle: Fugil Arcadia believes in ruthlessly protecting the masses at the expense of individuals. He tells Lux that in trying to save Philuffy, who was turned part Abyss due to an experiment, he's putting the whole kingdom at risk of their enemies taking control of her and using her to destroy the country from within. His adherence to this trope causes him to backstab Listelka, who only seeks political power at the expense of the world's citizens.
- Seirei Gensouki: Spirit Chronicles: Beltrum's government knows there is no hard proof that Rio accidentally pushed Flora off a cliff, but they decide he's a convenient scapegoat to avoid blaming an important noble house and potentially sparking a conflict between the dukes. Which ends up being All for Nothing when Duke Arbor starts a coup for different reasons.
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Steel Ball Run. This is basically the backstory of Axl RO, a minor antagonist appearing early in the work. He was drafted into the army during the American Civil war and his mission consisted of being a lookout stationed in a tree at a remote town. His job was to light a lamp in order to warn the soldiers nearby of an incoming enemy troop. He, however, refused to do so fearing that the light would give away his position, possibly leading to his capture and execution at the hands of the enemy. The troops then marched and burned the town to the ground, killing all the civilians and soldiers stationed there. Since then, Axl has been trying to find a way to repent for his sins. This is reflected by the power of his stand, Civil War, which is able to transfer or unload sin and guilt via the attacks of hostile, ghostly representations of people and objects Axl or his targets harbor as having wronged or unfairly discarded.
- Discussed in Weathering With You. As the weather gets steadily worse, Keisuke muses aloud if letting Hina be sacrificed so that the millions of residents in the Kanto region can get back stable weather isn't a fair trade that will make more people happy than it costs the one. It speaks to how dire the situation is that Natsumi, who is normally quick to call him out on his foolishness and had in fact done so mere moments ago on another matter, says nothing about this.
- In Watchmen, Veidt's final plan is to kill millions of people in order to trick everyone else into world peace.
- The League of Shadows, led by Ra's Al Ghul, has been around for centuries wiping out any civilizations that they think have become too corrupt, in order to stop them from spreading their corruption to the rest of the world.
- In Gold Digger, almost all of the atrocities Dreadwing has committed (mass murder, torture, rape, enslavement, etc.) can be placed directly at the feet of Ancient Gina. She needed a pawn to help her build the Infinity Engine, a machine that will assist in stopping the undead previous universe from wiping out the current one. Therefore, she indirectly gave Dreadwing the Time Raft to take revenge on T'Mat and her council and his obsession over the device would be his undoing as he eventually was blasted millions of years into the past where Ancient Gina had him work on the Infinity Engine.
- Parodied in Runaways, where a villain is trying to justify an attempt to exterminate the entire human race "for the greater good," and quotes the Star Trek example as "proof." The heroine is not impressed and responds with You're Insane!.
- In the CrossGen graphic novel series The First, the gods of House Dexter live by this trope. Their creed is to place the needs of others before self.
- The titular heroine of Albedo: Erma Felna EDF face a similar dilemma like Simon, except the sacrifice was even bigger: in the final part of the first Story Arc, Erma's homeworld is attacked by enemy forces (the ILR), while the ILR are ignoring they were part of a False Flag Operation from a member of Erma's own side, in this case her former boyfriend. Erma is forced to save her planet first from being destroyed while being unable to save her family, and also her actual boyfriend getting killed during the whole conflict, without mention she was exiled from her world after that as retaliation from both her ex and her own corrupt army in an attempt to get rid of her.
- Transmetropolitan: The Beast (aka the President of the United States) tells Spider in confidence that none of Spider's attacks against him really matter: as far as he's concerned, if 51% of America's population goes to bed with a full belly, he's done his job. His successor is even worse, barely keeping up the pretense of acting for the greater good.
- Superman has been the situation more than once where he is painfully aware that an individual is in mortal peril, but he can't get to that person immediately because he has to handle another emergency at that moment where there are multiple people in equal danger.
- Troller!: The human-inspired form of Reproduction that the Cybertronians are seen to be adopting produces young which are unable to transform (Sorry, Transmute). It will eventually breed out their transforming abilities, but it is the only way the Species can survive.
- Passionate Pragmatism: Erwin and Hange feel that making sacrifices is sometimes necessary in order to maximizing happiness.
- In Hellsister Trilogy, Supergirl and fellow Legionnaire Dev-Em argue because of her unwillingness to let one little girl die to protect their cover during a mission. Dev points out leaders often have to sacrifice a few lives to save a greater number of people.
Kara Zor-El: (shaking her head) Oh, Dev. I thought I knew you better than that. I thought you knew me better than that. If we don't step in to save people from the evil we're fighting, then what in Sheol are we fighting it for?
Dev-Em: Kara, you ever have a chance to read military theory and / or history? In case you don't know, commanders have to make decisions that will endanger some innocents, perhaps even kill them—
Kara: Not me. Not ever.
Dev: —Perhaps even kill them, to save the greater number and achieve the greater objective. You have to hold to the greater objective. You simply have to. There is no escaping that fact.
- Kyoshi Rising; this is essentially Yangchen's philosophy; the Avatar must place the safety and balance of the world before their personal beliefs and desires (in her case, killing potential threats despite being raised in a society that was built upon non-violence). Kyoshi agrees with her to some extent but vows not to lose herself in the way Yangchen did.
- In What Happens in Vegas, Dumbledore tries to pull this card on the Teen Titans when they refuse to let Willow Potter return to England until her bond with Raven settles (they can't leave each other's side until it does). In his words, there's fourteen thousand witches and wizards who need hope. Robin responds that by their own admission, Voldemort has about thirty followers and the Ministry has far more Aurors than that. Meanwhile, the Teen Titans are five people responsible for protecting seven hundred thousand people from roughly two hundred different supervillains.
- In Mega Man: Defender of the Human Race, there's a villainous version when Sunstar and Terra allow several other Stardroids to be destroyed so the rest of their race can survive.
- In The Power That's Inside, Professor Oak uses this to justify the system that uses Pokemon as a renewable energy source.
- In Parting The Clouds, an ongoing conundrum for Cassie is just how many innocent deaths are worth small advantages in the war, and where killing for military advantage turns into killing for mere convenience.
- Witness (Good Neighbors): Mortar is well aware that Endeavor has been abusing his son Shouto for years, along with many other cruelties spurred by his desire to outshine the former Number One Hero, All-Might. However, he keeps his silence, clinging to the notion that Endeavor does more good than harm:
Naomasa: Someone has to hold him accountable.
Mortar: It'll do more harm than good if you do. Face it, detective, that man puts away more villains than any other hero. He does more for this country and its people than we can ever measure.
Naomasa: We can, actually. There are people in the Commission who make a career out of it.
Mortar: *as if he didn't hear him* Everything else is a drop in the bucket to the lives he saves. Let him be, detective. It's worth putting up with a few missteps for the sake of the greater good.
Naomasa: *leaving* Keep telling yourself that.
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire: There's a short scene where the Ulysses has a hole blown in it and the Engineers are seen scrambling to escape. Audrey closes the section off when there's at least one more guy stuck in there and he presumably drowned. More of the sub would have been flooded with water if she hadn't done it, and a good portion of the staff there, like the gunners, had already died when the blast hit.
- Antz, with numerous references to (often morally dubious) actions being made "for the good of the Colony". This eventually gets thrown back in the villain's face when he tries to claim that drowning the entire colony and murdering the Queen is for the good of the colony.
- Star Trek:
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the Trope Namer, specifically the scene where Spock explains his Heroic Sacrifice.
- Explicitly averted in the Star Trek III: The Search for Spock when Kirk tells Spock that the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many (in this case, the Enterprise crew).
- Ironically reversed in Star Trek: Insurrection, where Picard argues against relocating 600 people from a planet so the Federation can harvest the planet's immortality-granting radiation to save billions of lives. However, the fact that they could already use the planet to save billions of lives without having to harvest it, and that the stated reason for resorting to said harvest is to save a specific group of people even smaller in number than the Ba'ku from dying of what turns out to be old age supports Picard's case.
- In Star Trek Into Darkness, Spock, The Trope Namer, tells the Enterprise to leave him to die in order to protect the Enterprise and uphold the Prime Directive during the prologue. Kirk later sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise.
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: As the damaged Nautilus is sinking to the bottom of the ocean, Captain Nemo must make a decision.
Crewman: Aft bulkhead open. Pump valves jammed!
Nemo: Seal it off!
Crewman: There are men in there!
Nemo: For the greater good, we must seal it!
- The antagonist in 2012 does this. It turns into Strawman Has a Point, considering that he believes some (or many) people can be sacrificed to save the human race.
- The Matrix Reloaded: Neo is forced to make the choice of returning to The Source, and allowing the Matrix to be re-booted, saving the lives of everyone still jacked in, or leave and save Trinity from the Agent she's fighting while letting the Matrix crash, killing pretty much all that's left of humanity. He decides to Take a Third Option.
- The Polish short film Mosttranslation , in which a man ends up sacrificing his son by lowering a drawbridge to prevent a train crash.
- Averted in Johnny Mnemonic. The data Johnny is carrying inside his head can save millions of lives. However, Johnny spends a significant portion of the movie putting his own life ahead of everybody else, as well as initially rejecting every proposal to retrieve the data because there is a chance that doing so could kill him or leave him with significant brain damage (even though he would die if he doesn't get the data out of his head, anyway). In the end, Johnny is convinced to go through with an attempt at removing the data from his head NOT because he'd be helping millions of other lives but because it's pointed out to him that there being a chance that retrieving the data would kill him would also mean there is a chance he'd survive, whereas Johnny's other possible fate leaves him no such chance.
- Spoken word for word by Sentinel Prime in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. This time, though, it's in a much more sinister context. Essentially, Sentinel uses this as justification for enslaving mankind to rebuild Cybertron (by "the many" he means all Cybertronians; he couldn't care less about humanity). Doubles as an Actor Allusion, since Sentinel is voiced by Leonard Nimoy.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier:
- This is part of HYDRA's rationale, culminating in a plan to institute world peace at the barrel of a gun... with twenty million lives as the first cost.
- Steve himself ends up having to fight his brainwashed, tortured best friend to save the lives of millions of people.
Steve: People are gonna die, Buck. I can't let that happen. Please don't make me do this.
- Subverted and deconstructed in Avengers: Infinity War. At different points, the heroes have the opportunity to stop Thanos' plan by sacrificing another character, but they either can't bring themselves to do it or hesitate too long. Indeed, the film goes out of its way to illustrate that anyone who could readily and easily go through with this would have to be an unfettered sociopath like Thanos himself, whose plan to eradicate half the universe's population hinges on this rationale and it's what motivates him to kill his beloved adopted daughter in order to obtain the Soul Stone.
- This is the message of The Schoolgirl's Diary, in which Su-ryeon learns not to resent her father for spending virtually his entire life at work because Dad is working for the benefit of the state. The state being North Korea.
- Wild River: Not spelled out in dialogue but an obvious theme of the film. The Tennessee Valley Authority will be a boon to the whole region, creating jobs, bringing electricity (one of the farmhands gapes with delight at the electric light in his cottage), and saving lives and property by ending the uncontrolled flooding of the river. But for this to happen, people like Ella Garth have to give up their river land, to allow for the construction of dams.
- Kapò: A group of prisoners are plotting to break out of a Nazi slave labor camp, helped by Nicole, a "kapo" (prison trusty guard). The plan for the prison breakout has already been made and is about to go forward when the Russians plotting their escape find out that cutting the power to the electrified fence will set off an alarm siren. That means that whoever cuts the power is doomed to be caught by the guards and immediately shot to death—and that's Nicole's job. A horrified Sasha has a hurried debate with another Russian who insists that Nicole can't be told.
Sasha: Why should she do it?
Other Russian: Her life for many others.
Sasha: Is it all right to barter with lives like that?
- Irrational Man: This is Abe's motive for murdering the judge, saying the world will be a better place if he's not in it.
- No Name on the Bullet Judge Benson speculates that if they gave hired assassin Gant whoever he was after, the town would recover and otherwise people will start turning on each other out of paranoia. At first the judge seems like a Pragmatic Hero during that speech but later it becomes clear he was considering making a Heroic Sacrifice.
- The Assignment (2016): Dr. Rachel Jane says her experiments on homeless people were for this, to advance medical knowledge which would benefit millions. Their lives, in comparison, meant nothing to her.
- Red Riding Hood: Father Solomon justifies everything he does (including torture and human sacrifice) through citing "the greater good".
- Hot Fuzz: The townsfolk will excuse anything, especially murder, if it means getting Sandford named Village of the Year.
- Mr Jones (2019): Duranty blandly defends the Soviet Union's policies this way, saying "You can't break an omelet without breaking some eggs".
- Atlas Shrugged ridicules this trope due to Ayn Rand's Author Tract. Examples of altruistic ideals turning into spectacular failures abound, but a special mention goes to the 20th Century Motor Company of Starnesville. After the company passed from the founder to his children and they reorganized the plant to a pay system of "from each according to ability, to each according to need," it turned into a nightmare train wreck for the employees before collapsing in on itself. This inspired John Galt to abandon his revolutionary electro-static motor and begin his quest to spur "the men of the mind" all over the world to strike and bring the end of the world ruled by altruist, collectivist morality.
- The Dresden Files gives us at least three subversions where the main protagonist refuses to put the many ahead of the few.
- First in Grave Peril Harry rescues Susan from Red Court vampires, even knowing that his actions will trigger a war with the Red Court.
- A second time is in Dead Beat when Wardens of the White Council stop their attack to prevent a necromancer from setting off a powerful ritual to get trick-or-treating children to safety despite knowing the dire consequences of failure.
- Harry does it again in Changes when his daughter is kidnapped by the Red Court during a cease-fire. This time around someone directly asks him to consider the needs of the many, but Harry makes it clear he'll let the entire world burn before letting the vamps hurt his daughter.
- From The Bible, John 11:49-50: "And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not."
- Similarly, in The Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 4:2: "It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief."
- Jesus Christ is basically this; see Real Life below.
- In the third Pendragon novel, Bobby has to choose between letting the Hindenburg burn, killing a few dozen people, or saving it and letting Germany win WWII. He almost makes the wrong choice, sending him into a temporary Heroic BSoD.
- In Crown of Slaves Berry Zilwicki risks her life to save the occupants of a captured slave ship, reasoning that one life against several thousand is "no contest, the way I see things."
- The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas almost (?) poses this as a question: If you lived in a Utopia that bought the happiness of the Many with the utter suffering of one child, would you accept it, or walk away? The story has been used in at least one ethics class.
- In the Star Trek Online novel The Needs of the Many, when Data is revived inside of his brother B-4, he comes to the conclusion that his resurrection should not come at the cost of his brother's and proceeded to create a program to erase himself, effectively committing suicide. However, when B-4, in an attempt to persuade Data to stop at Geordi La Forge's insistence, comes to realize that Data's survival would mean the survival of numerous Federation citizens, he pulls a Heroic Suicide by taking over Data's program and deleting himself. Data's not happy over this and neither is Geordi when he finds out that neither Starfleet nor the Soong Foundation actively cares about trying to restore B-4 now that Data's back.
- The Star Trek novel "More Beautiful than Death" (set in the alternate reality of the 2009 film) sees a warped inversion of this, as T'Pring risks the life of Sarek's diplomatic party to try and transfer the katra of her lost lover into Spock's body, all other parties aware of her plan making it clear that she is deluded at best and outright insane at worst.
- Inverted in the Doctor Who novel "Engines of War". That's how the Time Lords try to justify closing the Eye of Tantalus, even though it will destroy 12 worlds and kill billions. The Doctor decides it would be better to destroy the Daleks than saving Cinder, though the latter was due to her wanting him to do so.
- Deconstructed, mocked and shown a middle finger by The Witcher universe. One of the main running themes of the books is that the every day, basic human decency is always more important than the grand political ideas and 'the greater good'. Several of the main villains are trying to save the world by sacrificing Ciri and everything is set in a continental-scale war fought for petty ideological reasons with numerous atrocities committed by every single side.
- In The Machineries of Empire, Cheris has to sacrifice hundreds of her soldiers in a blatantly suicidal plan (one that involves them killing themselves, no less) for the sake of saving the Hexarchate. Understandably, she doesn't take it well.
- Dragonfall 5 and the Master Mind. The Master Mind is a Master Computer that runs a planet of intelligent rabbits (split into two warring tribes of White vs. Black rabbits) on the principle of "the greatest good of the greatest number". The Master Mind appears to be malfunctioning, so the White rabbits enlist Dragonfall 5 to take them to the computer and fix it. Turns out the Master Mind isn't broken — the Black Rabbits have been breeding like rabbits and now outnumber the White Rabbits, so the Master Mind is prioritising their interests over the White Rabbits.
- Defied in Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?. Aria points out that Argonaut could become a hero by turning her into the king, and that it would be the most logical thing to do: sacrificing one person for glory and the good of the many. He disagrees and tells her that this is not the kind of hero he wants to be. Instead, he wants to be the person who saves one person who saves ten more.
Argo: How can I call myself a hero if I can't make even one girl smile? I must try.
Aria: Wrong... A hero will sacrifice one life for the greater good. That is the choice they must make for their glory.
Argo: That is the one way of thinking, but that's not the kind of hero I want to be! I must save one life to save the next ten! "Sacrificing one life to save many" does not sit well with me. Something about it is... flawed. You may call me a loon! But I truly believe saving one life one day will save hundreds!
- The City of Brass: Deconstructed with King Ghassan, whose dedication to Daevabad's security leads him to keep a third of the population beaten down out of fear that they might rebel, conduct brutal punishments by proxy for any perceived rebellion, and cruelly coerce his own family into going along with him — all without considering whether he's even the best person to gauge the needs of the many, to the point that it tips over into Despotism Justifies the Means.
- In Warrior Cats, Clear Sky uses this as justification for the things he does (and also seems to genuinely believe it): expanding his territory by force, and driving out any injured or otherwise "weak" cats.
- Sword of Truth: The main villains of the series (The Imperial Order) use this to justify the murder of entire cities full of people. They reason that they are creating the perfect world, and that anybody who disagrees with them has no place in it. More broadly, they believe anyone in need should be served by the rest (although they're hypocrites about much of it).
- Fortitude: In the second season, Vladek, the Sami shaman, refuses to use his magic to cure Freya's ALS, saying he must save his power to defeat the demon he believes is threatening the village.
- Game of Thrones:
- When asked where his allegiances lie, Varys says he serves the realm, not the ruler. This is his justification for going along with the plan to assassinate Daenerys, for trying to prevent Littlefinger from gaining even more power, and most likely his reason for selling out Tyrion despite obviously having no desire to do so.
- A key element of Stannis' storyline. He's prepared to do terrible things and make sacrifices, such as killing Renly and Gendry, in order to save the realm. In the books, Melisandre justifies this by saying that any sacrifices he refuses to make would be killed anyway when the end of the world comes. This is finally taken to an extreme when he allows Melisandre to burn Shireen so that his own men won't freeze or starve to death before reaching Winterfell.
- Star Trek:
- In Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The City On The Edge of Forever", Kirk had to let Edith Keeler die to save his own timeline, because her peace efforts would have prevented the US from entering what would be World War II when they needed to, and cause Hitler and Nazism to conquer the world by developing the atomic bomb first. To save all those of their future, Kirk must stop Dr. McCoy from saving Edith from getting killed in a car accident. Kirk can't speak when Bones exclaims: "Jim! I could have saved her...do you know what you just did." Spock can only reply: "He knows, Doctor. Soon you will too. For what once was...now IS again." In James Blish's transcript in "The Star Trek Reader", Spock also comes across as trying to help Kirk rectify this. "No, you acted. Because no woman was ever loved so much, Jim. Because no woman was ever offered the universe for love."
- In "The Conscience of the King", Kodos the Executioner was originally the governor of an Earth Colony that had its food supply wiped out by a fungal outbreak. Facing mass starvation, Kodos decided that the only way they could survive until relief ships arrived was by killing half of the colony's population, massacring some 4,000 colonists in total. But after carrying out the deed, the relief ships reached the colony earlier than expected. Twenty years later, Kodos claims to Kirk that if that hadn't happened, he would've been hailed as a hero for saving the colony. Kirk—a survivor of the massacre—doesn't see it that way.
- A very dramatic version in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "In The Pale Moonlight", when Sisko enlists Garak in coming up with a scheme to draw the Romulans into the Dominion War on the side of the Federation. Garak succeeds but has to assassinate a Romulan official in the process, along with the criminal who forged the recording they are using to fool the Romulans into thinking the Dominion was planning to attack them. When Sisko confronts him over this, Garak points out that they might have just secured a Federation victory in the war, saving not only the Federation, but the Klingons, and eventually the Romulans and the rest of the Alpha quadrant from Dominion domination — "and all it cost was the life of one Romulan Senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer. I don't know about you, but I'd call that a bargain." At the end of the episode, Sisko admits to himself that it was a sacrifice worth making and that he'd do it again if he had to.
- Played with in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Thine Own Self". Troi is applying to become a Commander. One of her exams is a scenario where the ship suffers a critical malfunction that will destroy it, and the repair teams cannot fix the damage without perishing. It's presented as an engineering problem, but it's actually a Secret Test of Character. The solution is to order Geordi to do it anyway, knowing that he'll definitely die. Having passed the test after realizing that, Troi confesses she may not be cut out to be a Commander.
- In "Yesterday's Enterprise", a temporal anomaly throws the USS Enterprise-C from its fateful battle at Narendra III to a Bad Future where the Klingon Empire and the Federation have been waging war for over 20 years, and this timeline's Picard tells Enterprise-C Captain Rachel Garrett that Starfleet Command will likely surrender within 6 months.
Picard: One more ship will make no difference in the here and now. But 22 years ago, one ship could have stopped this war before it started.
- In "Yesterday's Enterprise", a temporal anomaly throws the USS Enterprise-C from its fateful battle at Narendra III to a Bad Future where the Klingon Empire and the Federation have been waging war for over 20 years, and this timeline's Picard tells Enterprise-C Captain Rachel Garrett that Starfleet Command will likely surrender within 6 months.
- Referenced (if not explicitly displayed) in the Star Trek: Voyager finale "Endgame"; although the crew has a chance to go home, Janeway is reluctant to take it as it would result in them sparing a Borg transwarp hub, one of the key tools the Borg use to assimilate other worlds. Janeway begins to reconsider the idea of getting home when she learns that Tuvok is suffering from a degenerative neurological condition that can only be cured in the Alpha Quadrant, but when she asks why he didn't support the plan for them to go home now, Tuvok quotes Spock to justify him putting his own needs second to the wider concerns.
- Star Trek: Discovery runs with this theme in the second season, with Captain Christopher Pike taking command and finding his own Starfleet ideals clashing with the more underhanded methods of Section 31, personified by Pike's former comrade Captain Leland. Notably Section 31's agents use this trope as justification for some very questionable ethical calls, while Pike and his crew will use the same reasoning to violate Starfleet protocols in their mission to save the Federation and, as it turns out, all sentient life in the galaxy.
- In the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise, the crew is tasked with saving Earth from being destroyed by the Xindi. By the end of the season, the ship has lost more than 20% of personnel while fighting the Xindi and other threats. After Corporal Hawkins is killed in action, Malcolm laments that they're getting too comfortable losing people. T'Pol tells him a certain Vulcan axiom and says that Hawkins (and, in effect, the other casualties) died honorably for putting the well-being of others first.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
- This occurs in in the season 2 finale "Becoming part 2". The Big Bad, Angelus opens a "swallow the Earth into Hell" vortex. The only way to close it is with the lifeblood of the one who opened it. Just before Buffy is about to deliver the needed deathblow. Plan B is executed by Willow too late, returning his soul and reverting him back to good-natured Angel. After delivering an "I love you" speech, Buffy thrusts a sword in him anyway for the greater good, tossing his into said vortex to close it. She then sends herself on a bus between seasons and the first episode of season 3.
- Giles attempts to invoke this trope but Buffy defies it at the end of Season 5 when Giles tries to persuade Buffy to go along with this trope and kill her not-really-sister Dawn if that's what it takes to save the world. Buffy is completely unwilling and threatens anyone who attempts it that she will kill them. It was a very compelling case because if the world ended Dawn would have died anyway. In the end it does come down to that, but Buffy finds a way to Take a Third Option. Discussing her previous actions a couple of seasons later, Buffy tells Giles she feels differently and probably would be willing to kill any one person to save the world at that point.
- In the same episode, Giles actually does invoke this trope, as the Big Bad, Glory, was forced by being battered by the gang into changing into a badly-injured Ben (a relatively-innocent human with whom she was forced to share a body). Ben being human, Buffy doesn't kill him, but Giles does, knowing if he hadn't that Glory would continue to terrorize the world.
- Once on Angel when the gang was on Pylea and making battle plans to free the downtrodden humans.
- In Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue an early episode has Carter, the Red Ranger, forced to put out a fire instead of saving a child from getting injured by falling debris, under orders from his superior. At first, he is angry but eventually it is revealed that if the fire had not been put out, it would've reached a flammable liquid, causing an explosion that would kill everyone in the area rather than injuring just one person.
- Averted in Malcolm in the Middle in the episode "Reese's Party". The morning after, the party guests refuse to leave and have kept the large Craig to torment. Malcolm, Reese, and Francis want to just hide out at Craig's house until their parents return, with Francis using the quote "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the guy that can't run fast." Dewey had been having fun with Craig all weekend, so he refuses to leave the poor guy behind, and tattles to the guests' mothers to force them to leave.
- In one episode, Jack (under emotional stress) agrees to sacrifice his grandson to save the 10% of Earth's children who would be subject to a Fate Worse than Death otherwise. This is especially jarring as the entire season leading up to that point had portrayed sacrificing a few to save the many as an unacceptable evil that the protagonists were willing to do anything to prevent.
- In Small Worlds, Jack turns over a little girl to the fairies, knowing that they are willing to kill mercilessly and excessively if their Chosen One is taken or harmed and that he has no way of stopping them. The mother is distraught, and the team refuse to so much as look at Jack as they leave.
- Doctor Who:
- In The Evil of the Daleks the Second Doctor is willing to sacrifice himself, his companion, and a few others in his plan to stop the Daleks infecting humanity with the Dalek Factor. Jamie calls him out on this.
- The Doctor has had to deal with this decision quite a few times. Typically, for the Doctor it's "the needs of the entire planet/universe outweigh the needs of the many", though:
- Detonating Vesuvius and destroying Pompeii to stop the Pyroviles from taking over the world.
- Ending the Time War by destroying the Daleks and the Time Lords, to prevent the use of the Final Sanction which would destroy all of creation.
- In The Day of the Doctor, Kate Stewart (daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and new holder of the title) is prepared to destroy London to prevent the Zygons from using the technology in the Black Archive to take over the world.
- Sometimes, though, the Doctor doesn't do this - more than once he's passed up the chance to stop the Daleks once and for all because it was between that and saving the world. It's eventually revealed, though, that some of his darker actions are because of his guilt over the things villains he didn't stop by any means necessary went on to do.
- In Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger, the team finds out that they can use the Greatest Treasure in the Universe to Ret-Gone the Zangyack Empire, but doing so will also Ret-Gone the Super Sentai. After debating whether they have the right to make that kind of decision (including one former Ranger encouraging them to do it), the team eventually decides that the Super Sentai's legacy of inspiring hope, courage, and strength in humanity is too important to throw away.
- In Babylon 5, Delenn admits to G'Kar that she more or less pulled this with regard to the Narn; she could have confirmed G'Kar's story about the Shadows and probably saved his world from invasion, but had she done so, the Shadow War would have started before the younger races were ready to fight it.
Delenn: We had to choose between the deaths of millions and the deaths of billions—of entire planets.
- In a previous episode, G'Kar had received a similar lesson from Kosh, posing as the image of his father, or possibly G'Quan. Not long after Delenn's revelation here, he proceeds to quote it:
G'Kar: 'Some must be sacrificed if all are to be saved.'
- In a previous episode, G'Kar had received a similar lesson from Kosh, posing as the image of his father, or possibly G'Quan. Not long after Delenn's revelation here, he proceeds to quote it:
- In the second season finale of Primeval, Lester is just about to bring Leek's plans to a stop. Leek however still has Cutter captured and threatens to have him killed if Lester does not back down. Lester refuses but does show some regret over it.
- Attila: Desperately needing an alliance with the Visigoths to take on Atilla and his Huns, Flavius Aetius agrees to have his Roman-raised daughter, who was sired by King Theodoric (both Aetius and Theodoric were once married to the same late woman), handed over to the Visigoths. Aetius looks dead inside when it happens, and he ensures that Theodoric is killed in the course of the battle in retaliation.
- Parodied in Quark when The Head and Dr Palindrome decide to send Quark on a suicide mission to stop a Negative Space Wedgie from wiping out the system.
The Head: This is a tough one, Palindrome. But as you know, one of the responsibilities of those in charge is to order the sacrifice of the few, for the sake of the many.
Palindrome: Yes, sir.
The Head: Particularly when those in charge, are among the many.
- The Good Place:
- Chidi gives Eleanor a lecture about utilitarianism, and the issues which it faces, such as if torturing one person to death so a hundred more are saved is moral. Jason puts in his own more selfish scenario-framing an innocent person who would otherwise break up a band and cause more (supposed) unhappiness.
- In season 3, we get a negative example in Doug Forcett, who has become so focused on The Needs of the Many that he has lived a miserable life, becoming a "happiness pump". At one point, another character maliciously asks for his shoe, which he gives because it will make the character happy... in tormenting him.
- Another Season 3 episode involves Chidi teaching Michael ethics and utilitarianism using the Trolley Problem (described in Real Life below). (It is believed that if Michael, a demon/denizen of the Bad Place learned ethics, he'd stand a better chance of getting into the Good Place with the main human cast.) Unfortunately, Michael decides to re-create various scenarios with himself and the humans on board a real runaway trolley, horrifying them (Chidi in particular).
- Space: Above and Beyond: In Mutiny, the ship the 58th faces destruction by the chigs if they don't divert power from one section to get away. That section happens to be where the InVitros are being stored, and the InVitro crewers refuse their orders. A mutiny occurs, but eventually they're persuaded to stand down because if they don't do this, everyone will die. In the end, they do it.
- The Handmaid's Tale: Fred justifies what the Republic of Gilead does based on this, saying they wanted to make the world better, but that never means better for everyone — it's always worse for some.
Laurel: I don't need you right now. Everyone else does. So go. Go save the city.
- In "Streets of Fire" Oliver is briefly torn between escorting Laurel to safety or getting the cure to the Mirakuru serum, which he will need to stop Slade. To make matters worse, the two goals are in opposite directions. She makes the choice for him:
- In "My Name is Oliver Queen", Felicity tries to get Roy to abandon his work on an inoculant to the Alpha and Omega virus to save Oliver. Ray quite rightly refuses, pointing out that thousands will die if he stops. She insists again that he save Oliver instead, only for him to refuse again. He then realizes that he can work on the inoculant, and she can use his ATOM suit to save Oliver.
- Charmed (1998): A version of the trolley problem bookends "Apocalypse Not", with the added twist of saving five strangers or one sibling. The moral dilemma plays out in the episode when Piper and Phoebe have to choose between losing their sister and helping the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the remake, Charity cites this when arguing that they must kill the Harbinger, even if it's still possessing Angela since hundreds more could die if it got loose. Mel however rejects the idea and looks instead for a spell which can exorcise this.
- Elementary: Odin Reichenbach justifies the vigilante killings he orders with this principle, saying it saves far more lives as the people killed would have murdered thousands. He even has a number of major intelligence and police officials behind him, since they agree. It turns out he's a hypocrite however, as some of the killings are just to eliminate obstacles in his corporate acquisitions, which he covers up by claiming the victims were also plotting murders.
- Das Boot (2018): Carla justifies her tactics on this basis, saying sacrificing some civilians as a result of the retaliation which she knows the Germans would exact for her attacks will cause more French citizens to rebel. This is debatable, as pointed out by other characters.
- Motherland: Fort Salem: Scylla's flashback before the massacre shows her superior blithely dismiss it with the "can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs" idiom. Apparently the Spree feel their atrocities are justified to free the witches (though how murdering random civilians will do that in their minds is anyone's guess). On the other hand, the government also thinks the disasters that use of weather magic causes is justified to achieve a greater good too.
- Trotsky: Trotsky justifies his brutality at one point this way, saying it was necessary to create a better world in the future for everyone.
- In the Gospels, Caiaphas, High Priest of the Sanhedrim, states this is a reason to have Jesus killed. Of course, the fact that he has been criticizing their belief system is a major influence too.
Caiaphas: You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.
- In the musical Starship by Starkids, this is a major philosophy on the Bug homeworld. Bug also sacrifices his human body in the end to save the rest of the Starship rangers, finally understanding what it means.
- As in The Bible, The High Priest Caiaphas in Jesus Christ Superstar suggests that "for the sake of the nation, this Jesus Must Die."
- Warhammer 40,000: This trope is played straight by various factions...
- Imperium of Man: Sacrifice plenty of Imperial Guard to win back a planet or successfully defending one. In some cases sacrifice the planet for the millions of other planets... okay, let's just say sacrifice a few billion for even more trillions.
- Eldar: They flip this trope, sacrifice the billions of non-eldar for the few eldar.
- Played straight when manipulating monkeys isn't gonna cut it and eldar have to enter the fray. Sure, they will abuse every dirty trick from their HUGE bag, but they still take losses even on successful raids and eldar expeditions end in disaster more often than one would think. All while being fully aware that And I Must Scream doesn't even begin to describe the posthumous experience of an eldar that got his soulstone broken or captured. Despite this, the survival of a craftworld or attempt to recover the soulstones always take higher priority.
- Tyranids: Subvert this by a long shot, lose billions but in the end they win and eat the planet dead and all. And those they lose? They just eat their corpses and recycle the biomass.
- Tau: Their main philosophy, the so-called "Greater Good", is essentially this. All Tau are expected to act in benefit to as many of their kind as possible, and screwing over others to benefit yourself is seen as one of the greatest sins you could commit. While personal ambition is a sin, ambition on a galaxy-wide scale is considered a virtue. Curiously, the idea of sacrificing yourself to achieve victory isn't seen as a virtue either - a commander who lets the situation degrade into a last stand clearly wasn't very competent to begin with, and one who invokes We Have Reserves clearly doesn't give a crap about the Greater Good of helping his many subordinates.
- In Exalted, characters who acquire the "Cosmic Transcendence of Compassion" ability turn that compassion entirely towards the greater good, which allows — and even obliges — them to "sacrifice millions of lives to save billions more". Such people have to strain themselves to show compassion towards individuals if the act isn't a net gain for society as a whole.
- Mass Effect:
Garrus: Suppose that's what it's going to take, Shepard: the ruthless calculus of war. Ten billion people over here die so twenty billion over there can live.
- Mass Effect 2's Arrival DLC has Commander Shepard ram an asteroid into a Mass Relay. The resultant explosion wipes out the entire system it's in, obliterating 305,000 colonists and Shepard will be put on trial for his/her actions. Justification? It delays a Reaper invasion, which would have wiped out all sentient life in the entire galaxy.
- A recurring theme in Mass Effect 3: If the galaxy is to survive, nobody can afford to stand by their own grudges (and there are many grudges, going back a thousand years or more) Also subverted multiple times: several leaders are forced to flee from battle, often leaving their own troops to die without them, because their leadership is needed by their people as a whole. At one point Shepard can be forced to choose which of two entire alien races is more worth saving. (Though if a save from the previous games in which certain choices were made is imported Shepard can convince both sides to lay down their arms and make peace.)
- The same reveals that this is the ultimate "logic" behind the Reaper cycle. The Catalyst eventually decided that, since organics and synthetics cannot be made to get along, it is better to harvest all sufficiently intelligent species every 50000 years to prevent a Robot War that could result in destruction so great that no life would survive it.
- This is also Shepard's logic for saving Admiral Koris over his men, arguing that Koris's survival is the only hope to get the quarian fleet out intact.
- Garrus Vakarian makes reference to this as he can convey to Shepard during quiet moments, as he has become an advisor to the Turian Primarch about what to do when Palevan comes under attack by the Reapers.
- In inFAMOUS Cole is faced with the sadists choice of saving the one or the many; his girlfriend Trish or half a dozen doctors who could save many lives themselves. It's a Karma-Moment, so the player gets to decide and is rewarded good or evil karma for a selfless or selfish decision respectively. Of course, it's programmed so she's doomed no matter what you choose, to prove a lesson either way. If you go after the doctors, which brings good karma, then it turns out Kessler told the truth and Trish really is the girl in the opposite tower, and she dies. Kessler congratulates you for making the selfless choice. But if you choose to save Trish and earn evil karma, then it turns out Kessler lied and the girl you save was just some random civilian; Trish was actually one of the doctors, and they all die. Then Kessler berates you for being selfish and putting your happiness above potentially several lives.
- In Alpha Protocol, choosing to save either Madison St. James or a whole room full of innocent people, and the choice between saving Ronald Sung by giving him the assassination plans or saving hundreds of people by foiling a plot to incite nation-wide riots.
- Dragon Age:
- A major theme of Dragon Age: Origins; it shows up in the Redcliffe and Circle quests, the whole concept of the Grey Wardens, and the endgame. The Qunari (not so much a race as a "religion" / philosophical movement) is also built on this, to the point where its adherents give up personal names and refer to each other by their role in society. They view their society as a single creature that they must all work to strengthen and protect. Dissent is not tolerated under the Qun; those who question their role in society are tortured or killed. Those who escape are regarded as psychopathic monsters who have damned their own souls.
- This theme is greatly mixed with the question of Freedom vs. Security, with the Chantry and Templars advocating locking up all of the mages in Thedas in towers and watching them 24/7 and arresting/executing any out of this system for things that they might do, in order to keep the greater population of the continent more secure-feeling in their safety. This is a heavily debated topic, both in and out of universe.
- A recurring theme in Battlefield 3. In one level the player plays a member of a Russian special forces team trying to prevent a nuclear attack in Paris. The team at the beginning discusses that they may come into a firefight with French police, but that it's far more important to stop the nuclear attack than worry about the fate of a few police. Later playing as an American forces they come under fire by Russian military who are basically after the same thing but fight back due to no other choice, the player character later says he held nothing against the Russians and doesn't consider them his enemy despite them killing much of his squad. Near the end of the game, it comes in full force when the player character guns down his commanding officer to allow a Russian special forces soldier to escape as the only hope of preventing a nuclear attack.
- The Trope Namer phrase is quoted word for word in the scrolling text on the intro screen to Lemmings. Rather appropriate, as the gameplay involves sacrificing the smallest number of Lemmings as possible so the rest can reach the exit.
- The Conquest Ending of Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 deals with the CPUs, humanized goddesses of various consoles and handhelds, trying to stop The End of the World as We Know It. To do such, they find a sword that can slay a God of Evil before she awakens and kickstarts said apocalypse, however the sword itself needs the soul of a CPU to be effective. Because of this Nepgear, the protagonist, decides against killing her friends to use the sword and suggested that everyone pools their shares into one nation, (Planeptune, the nation where she and her sister are the CPUs of) so that she and Neptune can defeat the Deity of Sin. Nobody else goes along with this plan because it could destroy their nations in the process (and also because at least one of them wants the shares funneled to their nation instead). The resulting conflicts lead Neptune and Nepgear to kill the CPUs of Lastation and Lowee, as well as their sisters in their I Cannot Self-Terminate moments while Vert, the CPU of Leanbox, attempts to invert this trope by taking the sword and the lives of its wielders so that she may live for her sister figure, but ultimately dies when one of the villains kill her after her fight with the protagonists.
- The Turing Test: TOM is willing to sacrifice the entire crew to protect the rest of humanity back on Earth.
- Played with and ultimately deconstructed in Tales of Berseria. "The many outweigh the individual" is the core of Shepherd Artorius's rhetoric, urging people to live their lives according to pure reason. The masses lap this up, seeing him as a messianic figure. At least, right up until Reality Ensues and people realize that merely ascribing to the Abbey's cause and rules doesn't automatically make them part of the many, and if the Abbey decides that protecting them from daemonblight is an ineffective use of resources, they are literally expected to accept being hung out to dry without question. Velvet takes this further in one conversation, pointing out to a pair of true believers that "benevolent" Artorius doesn't give a single solitary damn about anyone. People can die in droves for all he cares, as long as humanity benefits. (She's absolutely right, but Villain with Good Publicity that Artorius is, people have a collective blind spot to this bit of logic.)
- This was the logic behind creating the SPARTAN-II program in Halo. Faced with a galaxy-wide civil war that threatened to completely destabilize the UNSC and fighting terrorists who were willing to use nukes in populated areas to achieve their goals, which would result in millions, if not billions dead, ONI authorized Dr. Catherine Halsey to create a fighting force that could stop them. Said process involved taking kidnapping 75 children around 6 to 7 years old, subjecting them to Training from Hell, giving them physical augmentations that killed or crippled at least half of them, and committing them to a lifetime of battle. Noticeably, while the survivors were a resounding success against the Insurrection and would become humanity's best hope against the Covenant, Halsey always carried a great deal of guilt about the process and resolved to do right by them as best as she could. As she told Cortana herself once:
"I'm tired of sacrificing others for the 'greater good.' It never stops, Cortana...and we're running out of people to sacrifice."
- Spider-Man: Edge of Time: This is the primary source of conflict between Spider-Man 2099 and the present day Spider-Man. Miguel is only concerned with the grand scheme of things and stopping Walker Sloan from ruining the future, while Peter is obsessed with the human cost of his actions and refuses to abandon innocent people no matter what. At one point, the two end up in each other's time periods, and when Peter finds out that Mary Jane is destined to die that night, Miguel initially refuses to save her, stating he's got "enough to deal with," and only goes along with it when Peter outright begs him to do so. Even so, it doesn't stop him from snarking about it.
O'Hara: Hope the universe doesn't end while I'm trying to save one person.
- Spider-Man (PS4) sees Peter forced to decide if he should let scientists study the cure for the Devil's Breath, which would mean Aunt May would die, or give May the cure, which would doom many more to death. While in a moment of emotion, he nearly gives the cure to May, he ultimately chooses to let the cure by mass-produced and says his goodbyes to May.
- Fallout 76 has the quest "A Personal Moment", in which you learn that the Overseer for Vault 76 learned of the "Societal Preservation Program" — Vault-Tec's plans to use the majority of the Vaults as testbeds for extreme social engineering projects, which turned most of the Vaults into miniature hells that doomed the people they were supposed to save. She could have taken this information to the news media and perhaps stopped the atrocities from happening... instead, she covered it up, because she genuinely believed that the program was for the greater good; they weren't going to be able to save everyone anyway, so why not use these tests to make sure that the absolute best was done to handle that crucial minority. Though unconfirmed, the implication exists that Vault 76 was exempted from these experiments as a reward for her loyalty to Vault-Tec.
- Word by word told by Wrench to Marcus after the introductory mission of Watch_Dogs 2
Sitara: This Wierdo's Wrench
Wrench: (Performs a Vulcan Salute) The Needs of the Many.
- In the DLC missions of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, Matias Torres, the captain of the submarine Alicorn, justifies his plan to nuke Osean capital Oured with this. He and his crew strongly believe that killing one million people in their attack would end the ongoing war, which could otherwise cause ten million to die...or, so he would have his crew and the rest of the world believe. In reality, he is a Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist Blood Knight whose true goal is killing the million people at a peace rally using the nuke as part of his fetishistic obsession with death, and doesn't really care about whether or not it will end the war, as long as he gets what he wants.
Torres: The world shall be horrified by the number of lives we will take. Only then will they let go of their weapons... Weapons that would have taken the lives of ten million!
- A conversation between Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us deals with this. Ellie finds a dead body outside the Pittsburgh Quarantine Zone, and Joel explains that the military would kill people that they couldn't let in because dead people can't catch the Cordyceps infection and sacrificing the few would save the many. Ellie comments on how shitty that is and Joel, who lost his daughter to a trigger-happy soldier maintaining the quarantine, seems to agree. This conversation foreshadows the ending of the game. When Joel and Ellie finally find the Fireflies, Marlene explains to Joel that the process of creating a vaccine for the infection will result in Ellie's death, as they need to cut up her brain to remove the mutated fungus. Marlene is Ellie's surrogate mother, but she is willing to sacrifice Ellie if it means curing the infection and saving what's left of humanity. Joel, on the other hand, is not. And let's just say that Joel brutally wins that battle.
- In The Last of Us Part II, a flashback to just before Ellie's surgery involves a discussion of this. Marlene is reluctant to accept that Ellie has to die, but Jerry insists on it, although he's shaken when Marlene asks if he'd be willing to do the operation if it was for his daughter Abby. After Marlene leaves, Abby tells Jerry that if she was immune, she'd willingly consent to the procedure and give her life for the sake of humanity.
- Singularity: The game has three endings based on how you want to use time travel: listen to mission control for the 'supposed' greater good of rewriting history to stop a Bad Future, join with the Big Bad and work on improving the present, or Take a Third Option. Rewriting history for the greater good means inadvertently betraying your country to support the rise of a semi-benevolent Russian regime. Joining the Big Bad inevitably starts a second civil war. Taking A third option means refusing to let others tell you what to do, killing everyone involved, and leaving to forge your own destiny. The achievements are also named after this trope: 'The needs of the Many', 'The needs of the few', or 'The needs of One'.
- This is a constant theme in Dying Light, which continually brings Kyle Crane into conflict with his superiors. He wants to help the survivors still trapped within the quarantined city of Harran as much as possible, while his superiors have deemed said survivors to be completely expendable where it comes to saving the rest of the world. To quote just one of many examples:
Crane: There are still hundreds of innocent people in here! Maybe thousands!GRE: Irrelevant. We're doing this to protect billions of lives. Surely you can understand that!
- This is a recurring theme in Fate/stay night, where the Arc Words appears to be "a hero must choose the people he saves". Shirou's personal conflict in each route involves him finding an answer to the conflict between his ideal of saving everyone and the reality of it being impossible.
- The actions of Counter Guardians fall under this. They are deployed by Alaya to prevent disasters that would threaten the continued survival of humanity by destroying everything involved in the danger. More often than not the danger is human in origin, so the Counter Guardian will destroy every human even tangentially connected to the threat. Alaya views destroying entire nations as an acceptable loss if it ensures humanity's survival.
- Choosing to obey or defy the trope is a key decision in the "Heaven's Feel" scenario. Sakura has the potential to become a mindless monster that would kill hundreds, but can easily be stopped if killed before that happens, while she is in fact innocent of any crime. Playing the trope straight leads to a Bad End where Shirou follows his father's path and becomes a miserable murderer, killing innocents and even his friends to protect as many people as possible. Attempting to Take a Third Option and save everyone (which results in hundreds of deaths) allows him to earn a life with his loved ones.
- One of the unlockable endings and Steam Achievement to Long Live the Queen is named after this trope. If you can summon a kraken to stave off an invasion you'll be faced with one of two options, spend years keeping it from causing massive death and destruction, leading your country to bankruptcy and future political instability. OR Sacrifice your cousin whom you've been close with since childhood which unlocks this ending.
- Zero Time Dilemma revolves around a Deadly Game where the participants are put through Sadistic Choices. The most heavily advertised one sees Diana being given the choice of letting Phi burn to death in an incinerator, or shooting at Sigma with a gun that has a 1/3 chance of killing him. Both Sigma and Phi insist that she pick the option that puts themself in danger, with Sigma arguing that firing at him is the only option that could result in everyone surviving. However, the game also deconstructs this type of thinking, as Sigma's Cold Equation fails to take Diana's mental state in mind, as shown in the timeline where Sigma dies. As it turns out, the guilt of shooting someone becomes too much for Diana and she promptly turns the gun on herself, showing that the "safer" option may have more unforeseen consequences that could end up killing "the many''.
- In Freefall strip 2162, Florence says, "There are over 450 million robots. There are only fourteen Bowman's wolves. If I have to choose, I have to go with the robots." Florence is a Bowman's wolf and would sacrifice her own race to save the robots. Later another character argues against sacrificing Florence because this sounds all very well until you're designated the few.
- When Mr. Kornada is presented with the Trolley Problem in a user-submitted joke, he came to a "reasonable" conclusion.
Officer: You said that you would redirect the trolley to hit one person rather than hitting five. It was your reason for doing so that disturbed us. "It would do less damage to the trolley car." Yes, you are correct, but I really think you're missing the point here.
- When Mr. Kornada is presented with the Trolley Problem in a user-submitted joke, he came to a "reasonable" conclusion.
- Paranatural: The spirit Forge goes on a rant against this sort of behavior, making it clear he had this mindset in the past.
Forge: We burn the present for the sake of a brighter future and act surprised when all it holds is ash!
- RWBY, A recurring theme and character flaw of Ironwood's is that he is willing to make any sacrifice for the sake of protecting the people of Remnant, even his own personal safety. This is deconstructed however come Volume 7, by demonstrating Ironwood doesn't know when he's gone too far. In his quest to stop Salem and protect Remnant, Ironwood's actions have negatively affected the people of Mantle as he continues to rationalize it as necessary. Jaune and Nora however, both point out that his actions only hurt his cause, with the people of Remnant distrusting him for his embargo and the people of Mantle despising him for his military presence negatively affecting them. Eventually, he even begins to see Salem's lack of humanity as an asset and wishes he too could sacrifice his humanity, requiring Oscar trying to keep him grounded and make sure he doesn't do anything he'd end up regretting. When he realizes Cinder is in the city and Salem is on her way in person, he concludes that it's now impossible to save both Mantle and Atlas; he decides to save Atlas with a plan to send the city high enough into the sky to outfly the Grimm, abandoning Mantle and its remaining, un-evacuated citizens, to their deaths. His argument is that, if he tries to complete the evacuation of Mantle, Salem will destroy the entire kingdom, obtain both Relics and the Winter Maiden and then be able to conquer the rest of Remnant. By dooming Mantle, he believes Atlas and the rest of Remnant can be saved. It triggers a terrible in-universe schism as the protagonists split into two factions: those who agree with Ironwood's assessment and those who don't. During their final argument in the Atlas Vault, Oscar even points out that he would technically only be saving a handful of lives with raising one single city out of reach while Salem will slaughter the millions of others left on Remnant.
- In Worm, Dinah Alcott, the third most powerful precognitive in the world, begins to embody this trope following her captivity by Coil. She knows that the world is going to end in two years, and can give the exact numbers down to the fourth decimal place. Therefore, she begins to orchestrate events to reduce the number of casualties-even if it means betraying the person who saved her from captivity. Keep in mind that she's nine years old.
- Cauldron is another example of this. While Cauldron is initially presented as a business selling superpowers to customers, it turns out that their goal is to kill Scion, thereby saving humanity. They engage in many heinous actions to achieve these ends, including sacrificing thousands of lives to appease a supervillain and abducting civilians to use as test subjects.
- The Entities are a more extreme example of utilitarianism, as their sole purpose is to continue the cycle in order to prevent the heat death of the universe, even if it means the extinction of thousands of alien species.
- On South Park, Stan quotes it to his father, claiming it's "from a little book called The Bible." Kyle then corrects him and tells him it's from Wrath of Khan.
- This was Aang's final dilemma in the last episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, when Aang was distraught over the thought of having to kill Fire Lord Ozai in order to save the world, even though his upbringing as an Air Nomad and monk taught him to hold all life as sacred, even the lives of people who might be morally evil. His friends try to brace him for this as best they can, while his past incarnations either agree with them or just say he'll have to stop agonizing and make a decision no matter what. He might have gone through with it if there was NO other choice, but the Lion Turtle gave him a third option.
- In The Dragon Prince, by some of the same people as Avatar, has this repeatedly examined, played with, and deconstructed. Sacrificing one person rather than many often comes off as the best solution, but it's just as often used as a way to find an easy way out and not actually solve the problem at hand, causing more problems later. Case in point in the backstory: Killing one Titan to save 100,000 people from starvation is an easy choice, but in the process, they ignited a war with Xadia. Considering it's made by some of the same people as Avatar above, it's not surprising.
- This is the basic principle behind Utilitarian ethical philosophy.
- The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment that forces the subject to choose between actively sacrificing one for the many or allowing the many to die through inaction. The thought experiment involves a scenario where a runaway train is barreling down a track towards a group of five people who are immobilized, and a fork between the train and the group leads to another track on which is one immobilized person. The subject has to decide whether to toggle the switch that will move the train onto the other track and kill the person on it. The thought experiment is used in psychological studies to gauge the degree of utilitarian thinking in the test subject and how various variables such as age, sex, and degree of fatigue affects it. It also has several variations, such making the subject decide whether to personally murder by pushing someone into the path of the oncoming train, assuming that the person has the mass to stop it, to save a group of people ahead. This variation is intended to invoke more personal involvement, and experimentally fewer people are willing to take this option in this variation. Another popular variation puts the larger amount of people on the trolley itself, with the question being if the subject is willing to let the trolley crash or fall off a cliff to save one person on the other track, and many other variations include making the person on the diverted track. Other variations include making the person on the diverted track a relative or loved one of the subject, replacing the "sacrifice" with the subject's arm or leg, and even going so far as to have the subject themselves be the one on the diverted track.
- Of course, the solution to the trolley problem is to grab it as it goes past if you're careful the groceries won't spill out. What!? You said it was a trolley.
- Weighing the needs of the many is intrinsic to any government decision and policy, where hard decisions have to be made to ensure the greatest prosperity and well being of society. A most direct example of this is in hostage scenarios. Acceding to the demands of the hostage-takers can potentially endanger more people in the future because the criminals emboldened by the success may attempt more hostage-takings and are more capable of having acquired the resources. Refusing will result in the death of all hostages, and Taking A Third Option in trying to attack the hostage-takers is likely to get at least some of the hostages, and maybe some of the police, killed.
- Considering the needs of the many is also present in scenarios less directly involved with life and death, such as whether to cut the funding to the senior citizen assistance programs and therefore depriving the most vulnerable senior citizens of health and financial aid, to fund infrastructure projects that will aid a regional economy.
- This is the reasoning the Nazi party used in their propaganda to justify the sterilization of 400,000 German citizens in the period 1933-45 and the extermination of Germany's 70,000 remaining mentally ill and disabled in the period 1939-45. Interestingly, the sterilizations were not carried out by government personnel or under orders, but by regular doctors with government encouragement and approval. In fact, the Nazis had a slogan, Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz: "The common good goes before individual good." See The Holocaust and the article on Aktion T4 on The Other Wiki for more on this.
- The ultimate reason why the lower levels of warfare must always be subordinated to the higher levels - tactics to operations, operations to strategy, and strategy to Grand Strategy - to avoid disaster.
- This is the rationale for war and military mobilization in a War of Annihilation (Vernichtungskrieg), such as the Soviet-German War: better the country be impoverished and many people die than the entire people be exterminated. It can still apply to ordinary wars in which the survival of the civilization itself is not at stake, such as Germany's war with the rest of The Allies, but the cost-benefit is not so obviously clear-cut.
- On a debatably positive note, this is part of the 'logic' behind assassinating a tyrant - kill one obviously evil person (and those loyal to him) so that thousands or even millions may live free of his oppression.
- On the other hand, Terry Pratchett noted that there's a flaw in this logic: "Shoot the dictator and prevent the war? But the dictator is merely the tip of the whole festering boil of social pus from which dictators emerge; shoot him and there'll be another one along in a minute. Shoot him too? Why not shoot everyone and invade Poland?"
- Zigzagged with Communism and Karl Marx. The ideology itself can be considered Utilitarianism taken to the extreme: the massive wealth and goods of the upper class (the capitalists) should be taken away and redistributed among the working class majoritynote , for the sake of the greatest benefit for the greatest number. Ironically enough, Marx himself criticized Benthamite utilitarianism, stating that human nature is too dynamic to be limited to a single utility (hedonic pleasure) and said that Bentham failed to take into account the changing character of people. However, other communists and socialists did justify themselves on the basis of utilitarian philosophy.
- Benthamite Utilitarians have argued for animal welfare on the grounds that sentient animals are capable of pleasure and suffering, and thus their needs must be taken into account. This is rejected by Mill-type Utilitarians who adhere to the concept that human beings have different qualities of pleasure, including but not limited to the acquisition of Knowledge, something animals are not capable of, hence the maxim: Better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Now many other schools of Utilitarianism exist, with conflicting views on what the "greater good" is, and how it applies to animal rights (or anything else).