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"note , 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 completely unnecessary in the first place, or the wrong people are sacrificed through misunderstanding or inadequate information, My God, What Have I Done? is the usual reaction. See Original Position Fallacy for characters who only hold this view because they assume that they're part of the "many" and not the "few".
Contrast The Social Darwinist, a view which favors the (more "worthy/chosen") few and ignores the rest.
If the "one" has done so much for the "many", then the "many" may take up an effort for Repaying for the One.
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- 9: 1, the anti-heroic and questionable leader of the Stitchpunks, uses this trope to justify sending the frail and curious 2 out to his death — to the disgust of the other Stitchpunks when they find out, especially 7. At first, this seems like a feeble excuse for 1's Dirty Cowardice, but a more moral instance occurs in the movie's climax when 1 proves that he holds himself to the same standard, echoing his earlier words ("1 must be sacrificed...") before sacrificing his life to help stop the Fabrication Machine for good.
- 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 every non-military ant in the colony and murdering the Queen is for the good of the colony.
- 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.
- In the country song "Widow Maker" a big rig truck driver sends his truck off a cliff to his death in order to save a pickup truck full of kids that were blocking his path. "One life for ten / Has always been / A diesel drivers code / Thats why Billy slung that Widow Maker off the road"
- 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.
- Also, 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; the idea that he sacrificed himself, allowing himself to be crucified, in order to allow humanity as a whole to gain salvation for our sins is one of the foundations of Christianity.
- As in The Bible, The High Priest Caiaphas in Jesus Christ Superstar suggests that "for the sake of the nation, this Jesus Must Die."
- 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.
- 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.
- In Nomine: The Elohim's detached, logical and objective approach means that they're often the angels most willing to sacrifice individuals or small groups for the sake of the greater good. Archangels often use them for missions that would upset more emotional angels, but which Elohim will calmly accept once provided with an explanation for why, say, assassinating this one person will benefit the world as a whole.
- 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.
- A recurring theme in Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony: Kaede, Kirumi, and Miu all attempt murders at least partially out of a desire to prevent an even greater amount of deaths.
- 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.
- Galaxy Angel: The final game of the first trilogy brings up this trope when the heroes are faced with the possibility of a new Chrono Quake, a catastrophe that caused the collapse of the civilization six centuries ago. Their ideal scenario is to try and defeat the Valfasq before they can detonate the Chrono Quake Bomb, but in the event of that happening, the only way to save the galaxy would be to use an Emblem Frame to create "Another Space" to redirect the bomb's energy, which would result in the Emblem Frame and its pilot getting dragged into it and unable to return. In the end, as the Chrono Quake Bomb was connected to the Valfasq's emperor so it would activate if he dies, Tact decides to get into his Angel's Emblem Frame so they pilot it together, and save everyone. The trope is subverted when Noah and everyone else finally figure out a way to reach Another Space, and rescue Tact and his Angel after an unspecified amount of time.
- 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.
- Brought up in Your Turn to Die, where it forms the crux of a major decision. Kanna Kizuchi, a suicidal child, advocates sacrificing herself in favor of Sou Hiyori, who has information on how to potentially escape the Deadly Game and thus prevent any more deaths. The problem with her logic is that he, despite his dubious actions taken in the name of self-preservation, is content to lay down his own life for her. You decide which one of them dies.
- 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!
- Schlock Mercenary has such a moment when Admiral Chu of the Battleplate Chicxulub learns that the enemy plans to cover-up the fact that the civil war they're triggering is a False Flag Operation by sabotaging the annie plant underneath Dom Atlantis and destroying the evidence, as well as the city
Admiral Chu: Chica, take us down.
Chicxulub: Admiral Chu, Chicxulub can breach the city's shields and deliver payloads but we will be destroyed.
Admiral Chu: Thirty-two thousand weighed against four billion? I'll make that trade.
Chicxulub: Collateral damage will be extensive, I will be careful but hundreds of thousands in the city will still die.
Admiral Chu: The scales still tip correctly. Make sure the frigate captains know their targets and have clear, clean runs.
- Unfortunately the enemy has orchestrated a Xanatos Gambit such that even if Chu saves the city it will look like Earth's navy attacked their own capital which in the current political climate could also be exploited to trigger a civil war. Less unfortunately the Toughs have a Secret Weapon that allows them to Take a Third Option.
- 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.
- Central to The Trolley Problem by Dyce, which discusses the tendency for supervillains to present this as a Sadistic Choice to heroes, blaming them for whatever they decide. One of the protagonists cuts the knot by shooting the hostage taker, then defends their decision to their companions.
- 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.
- 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 note . 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.
- 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).