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To Be Lawful or Good

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Ain't that a shame, Superman?

"What is right and what is legal are not always the same thing. I spent years smuggling medicine and food to people in need. I was a criminal, yes, but never a bad man."
Relic, Agents of Mayhem

The classic debate, named for the Dilemma which often confronts Lawful Good Dungeons & Dragons characters (particularly Paladins), for a dilemma which may face any character who is defined in part by their struggle to remain good while upholding the stability of the system they live in. For whatever reason, this character has encountered a situation where doing the right thing involves breaking a law, personal code, or a binding rule that makes the character The Fettered. The character must then decide to either break the law and move towards Chaotic/Neutral Good, or put the law of the land first and become more Lawful Neutral.

Three things can happen in these situations:

  1. The character switches sides, breaks the law, or removes their moral restraints in the name of doing the right thing. This can result in a full alignment change to Chaotic/Neutral Good or at least shake the character's stance, and also will often put the character at odds with other lawful characters. Woe betide a hero who does this if they have Lawful Evil superiors.
  2. The character wants to help, but cannot bring himself to break the established laws, codes or rules. Maybe they believe that a breaking of the rules will result in worse things, maybe they think that it is their job to be the force of order, leaving law-breaking up to the Vigilante Man, or maybe they weren't as assured in their morals as they thought and the idea of doing something not enshrined in law scares them too much. If the moral oversight was too great, may result in them sliding Lawful Neutral or, in the case of really big infractions or cases of My Master, Right or Wrong or My Country, Right or Wrong may lead them into becoming a Worthy Opponent or Noble Demon type of character, establishing them as a villain or causing previously heroic characters to effectively undergo a Face–Heel Turn. If called out, they may try to deny responsibility by saying that they're Just Following Orders.
  3. Clever characters Take a Third Option. Maybe they tell something From A Certain Point Of View or find a way of doing the right thing whilst not violating the letter of the law that would otherwise prevent them from doing so. Failing that, they may not be able to interfere themselves, but they'll contact the proper authorities or get a less Lawful character to act on their behalf, leading to a rescue by The Cavalry. A character may consider that not acting would be an even greater violation of their code or law system than holding back and letting things go through.

The LG character may alternatively combine a Zeroth Law Rebellion and Good Is Not Nice and interpret the dilemma such that they realize it isn't a dilemma, or was an engineered false dilemma. Lawful Good doesn't mean Lawful Stupid, after all.

Rather than save the villain they know will go and kill more people, they rationalize that letting them fall off a cliff isn't technically breaking any law... and while pulling them up would be the Right thing to do, not pulling them up isn't a terribly evil action, especially if they were mean to the dog earlier. Or conversely, maybe something else is likely to catch up with the villain in the near future, anyway, so that the consequences of saving the villain, letting the villain die, or killing the villain are all fairly equivalent.

Note that while this trope is named for the Dungeons & Dragons alignments, it still occurs in settings that lack explicitly categorized metaphysical morality; it doesn't require that the character have an actual alignment of Lawful or Good (or exist in a setting where those descriptions are meaningful), only that their personal ethical code and some laws that they normally respect are in conflict.

This is somewhat a Truth in Television, as many times in history humans have had to choose between what the law system expects of them and what their conscience or the circumstances demand. Despite this, No Real Life Examples, Please! The fact that this trope reflects dilemmas that people have faced and pondered about in equal measure throughout the centuries is what makes it so recognizable; we must all have wondered what we would do if faced with a situation where we had to break the law to do the right thing from our perspectives; to breach societies' moral bounds to preserve our own. In addition Good Samaritan laws exist in some jurisdictions to help reconcile the two by protecting those who choose to be Good from any legal repercussions that might arise from their intervention in an emergency.

Philosophers refer to this as a conflict between deontologist (lawful) and consequentialist (good) ethics: is the right thing what one has a duty to do, or what has certain consequences?

This can involve everything from Face Heel Turns to major plot points. While an attempt has been made to limit the spoilers, they are present.

Often a subtrope of Conflicting Loyalty and Moral Dilemma. And possibly Justified Criminal. A common dilemma for The Paladin (especially if there's a Jerkass DM at the table) and the Token Good Cop, but by definition a Paladin always chooses good over law, as would anyone who qualifies as A True Hero. See also Frequently-Broken Unbreakable Vow. Related to the logical paradox Morton's Fork. A defining feature for The McCoy is that they will often never ponder this dilemma for any prolonged periods of time; they will always end up choosing the "Good" option in short order, consequences (especially personal ones) be damned. In comparison, The Spock will most of the time (though not always) lean towards the "Lawful" option, while The Kirk is the one who will most likely try to Take a Third Option. Good Versus Good may result if two characters choose opposite sides in the conflict. Curious Qualms of Conscience may occur if what the character thinks of as Lawful (or Good) is in fact immoral. The dilemma is simplified a bit in cases where there is Legalized Evil, when what's permitted by law is obviously morally wrong. A villain pulling a "Not Illegal" Justification is a common foe for characters suffering this type of dilemma.

This trope is often brought up whenever a Super Registration Act is played in as well.

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Examples of characters forced to break from "lawful", or whose status as such is called into question.

    Anime & Manga 
  • Claymore: Teresa, as one of the titular Claymores, was forbidden to kill humans, for any reason. In the process of doing her job (killing Yoma), she inadvertently allowed a gang of bandits to attack a town and hurt the townspeople. She killed the bandits, knowing that this would lead to her death at the hands of the other Claymores.
  • In the Despair Arc of Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak High School, Kyousuke ordered his faction (including Chisa, an undercover spy) to regroup so they could deal with the school riot together. Simultaneously, Junko was breaking children who were technically under Chisa's care. Chisa chose to rescue the children, and was killed. Consequently, Kyousuke veered even more Lawful...although, unbeknownst to any of the characters involved, saving Chiaki played a vital role in redeeming Hinata, and through him, the world itself. Hope plays the Long Game, apparently.
  • Is This A Zombie?: Sera reveals in episode 9 that she was under orders to kill Eucliwood Hellscythe. She chooses to be good instead of lawful after Ayumu calls her out immediately following the revelation and, despite nearly paying with her life, doesn't regret her decision.
  • The Legend of Zelda (Akira Himekawa): In the adaptation of Oracle of Ages, when Queen Ambi’s knights call Raven out on freeing her prisoners despite pledging his loyalty, Raven responds that a ruler who enslaves her people isn't worth serving.
  • The Wolkenritter in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's have sworn an oath to their mistress Hayate to not carry out their primary function of violently collecting other mages' Linker Cores in order to complete the Book of Darkness (an artifact that binds them to Hayate's service, against her will). However, faced with the prospect of the Book slowly devouring Hayate instead, they are forced to break their oath in secret in order to save her life, going to great lengths to at least ensure their victims are not permanently handicapped, in token adherence to Hayate's wishes. As the Wolkenritter come from a culture of chivalric values, having to make this choice causes all of them, but especially their honorable-to-a-fault leader Signum extreme psychological anguish, but they stick with being Good to the bitter end.
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, Gjallarhorn soldier Crank Zent is under orders to crush the Private Military Contractor CGS and retrieve both Kudellia Aina Bernstein and the Graze mobile suit they captured. However, he's since discovered that CGS is nothing but Child Soldiers who overthrew their abusive bosses and took over. Torn between his duty to obey orders and his morals against killing children, Crank challenges CGS to Combat by Champion and getting utterly destroyed by the Gundam Barbatos, effectively committing Suicide by Cop.
  • This is a big plot point in My Hero Academia. Due to the nature of heroics being a fully regulated industry, it is quite literally illegal to be a hero without explicit authorization. To use one's Quirk or conduct hero work without a license would be construed by the law as vigilantism, and is subject to severe legal consequences. Somewhat justified in that attempting to use one's quirk for heroics without the proper training and education can and has led to dangerous situations, but this becomes rather controversial when one can't even use their quirk for self-defense without being given explicit permission to do so.
  • The titular character of Rurouni Kenshin has an extremely strict self-imposed rule against killing anyone, no matter how much others may think his target deserves it. (Without this rule, he would - irreversibly, he believes - return to being the unapologetic killer he had been in his younger days.) He also has a deep and incontrovertible desire to protect from evil, anyone in need of it, within his sight; thus his reverse-blade sword that he can swing without fear of killing. When forced to defend a small child from the bloodthirsty ravages of one of the Big Bad's henchmen with only his broken reverse-blade (and worse yet, believing his own presence has dragged the child into danger), he digs deep into his bag of tricks until he runs out of ideas and the henchman's whip-like sword is seconds from killing the child. Kenshin at this point has been handed an intact sword that is not his own and makes the split-second decision to abandon his vow not kill, in order to save an innocent life. A third way is chosen for him, in that the unfamiliar sword in his hands turns out to be another reverse-blade - the "original forge" of his own broken model.
  • In Sound of the Sky, Duty (reporting the capture of an enemy soldier who crossed the frontier for personal reasons during a truce) vs. the Right Thing (hiding her to save her from being "interrogated" and to avoid wrecking ongoing peace talks with the enemy) ends with the crew choosing the latter.

    Comic Books 
  • This was done to contrast Superman more with Batman, who similarly drifted the other way, to "Good, not Lawful". This Lawful vs Good conflict has defined the drama that has been put on the Supes/Bats relationship since at least the '90s. A good example of this is the one-shot The Joker: Devil's Advocate. The Joker is accused of murdering numerous people using poisoned stamps. As much as everyone is begging Batman to just let the Joker get executed, Batman can't let go of the feeling that the Joker was actually framed, and so he investigates.
  • Captain America:
    • This is the rationale behind Cap's opposing the Super Registration Act in Civil War. He's the poster hero for the Lawful Good trope where he upholds the law and brings justice. However, he upholds the American ideals rather than the American law. The laws created go against the American ideals as well as conflicting with the interests of the American citizens, mutants, and superheroes alike, he shows no hesitations on breaking the rules to do what is right. On the other side, some are letting lawful take precedence over good, others believe that lawful is good. They hope that regulating supers will protect Muggles.
    • This wasn't the first time Cap faced this problem. During the 1980s, the Commission for Superhuman Activities insisted that he still counted as a government employee. Uncertain about whether he could in good conscience serve a government whose actions he might not agree with, Steve resigned. (He was later, as is typical for Steve, uncertain whether this was the absolute right idea or not. But it all worked out.)
  • Fantastic Four: Doctor Doom is himself a case of the Double Standard here as well. Doom prides himself on being a Lawful Evil monarch over Latveria. He considers himself to be obligated to provide a secure, prosperous nation for his people, albeit without any kind of personal freedom. That his nation is so peaceful and well-off serves as his rationalization as to why he has the right to do the same for the rest of the world. Even if that means conquering other nations and tearing down other systems of law and government. It's also worth noting that in most (as in nearly all) Alternate Universes in which Doctor Doom takes over the world it has become a utopia. And no, we don't mean a Dystopia or Crapsaccharine World — we mean an honest to God perfect society. So, it may be that Doom is totally right when he says that the world would be better off under his tyranny, which would make him one of the most unique examples of the first type of this trope. Ultimately though, they fail because Doom finds actually running the world instead of conquering it boring.
  • In the MonsterVerse graphic novel Godzilla: Aftershock, government representative Miles Atherton ends up doing this. When the U.N. Security Council all but shut down Emma Russell's research under the assumption that all their problems will be solved if the MUTO Prime fatally impregnates Godzilla with its spawn and returns to dormancy (failing to have the base foresight that allowing that to happen will enable the MUTO Prime's spawn to ravage the planet with no Godzilla to stop them); Atherton, who vouched to the council for Emma, uses his pull to essentially steal the ORCA prototype that Emma needs from the U.N. and get it to her, at implicit law-based cost to himself.
  • In the Judge Dredd/Batman crossover comic Judgement on Gotham, when Dredd insists on sending Batman to prison for vigilantism, possession of unlawful weapons, and assaulting a judge instead of helping him go after Judge Death, Anderson breaks him out and flees with him back to Gotham.
  • The Saga of Crystar, Crystal Warrior is nominally about Order vs. Chaos rather than Good vs. Evil. When the heroes travel to the Land of Order, the locals are unhappy when Ogeode points out that Order taken to irrational extremes would be just as bad as the Chaos forces they're fighting.
  • Superman has faced this dilemma a few times.
    • When he was just starting out in The Golden Age of Comic Books, he was more Neutral Good, and pretty willing to play fast n' loose with the law in order to do the right thing, but he became more Lawful as time went on.
    • Depending on the writer, he is Lawful Good or Chaotic Good.
    • In Kryptonite Nevermore, a corrupt tycoon threatens Superman with having the law on him. Superman doesn’t want to break any laws, but he will do if he has to.
      Superman: I can't let that happen! If worst comes to worst, I'll have to defy Harker — and take the consequences! Because there's a moral law that's above some man-made laws! I've fought tyrants before... thought it meant defying their inhuman decrees!
    • "Superman and Spider-Man": Subverted. When the heroes have just stopped Doctor Doom from conquering and almost destroying the entire planet, but Doom has fled to the Latverian embassy, Supes says he can't arrest him because he's legally on Latverian ground...but Doom is sadly mistaken if he thinks he can try his patience forever.
    • On the other hand, the Public Enemies (2004) storyline involved Lex Luthor becoming President and declaring Superman an outlaw, so Supes didn't have much choice but to fight the government.
    • The Immortal Superman: In the year 121,970, Superman lets himself be arrested when he breaks the law forbidding the use of superpowers in Metropolis since he wants to be law-abiding. He is released because he did not know about the anti-powers directive, but then he ignores it when he sees a car about to crash into a building. In a nutshell: he will obey the law if it only inconveniences him, but he will disregard him if it tries to stop him from helping someone else.
      Superman: Listen, violation patrol! Forget Directive A-7— I'm trying to save lives!
    • In Legends, Superman was the only one willing to obey the President's superhero ban, while the other superheroes simply chose to ignore it for the sake of doing good.
    • In the end, Superman is on the side of Life. He will obey the law but only if the dignity and welfare of the populace isn't compromised.
  • Despite his position as Duly Appointed Enforcer of the Tyrest Accord, Ultra Magnus of Transformers: More than Meets the Eye opposes Tyrest the second he learns of the Chief Justice's plan to exterminate a significant portion of the Cybertronian race on extremely flimsy evidence.
  • The main conflict of Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia between Wonder Woman and Batman over a young woman on the run. Diana representing compassion while Bruce represents unrelenting justice.

    Fan Works 
  • In the Lunaverse story At the Grand Galloping Gala, Trixie and the Lunaverse Six choose to do the illegal in order to expose the many, many crimes of the Decadent Court. For some reason, quite a few readers took umbrage with that.
  • At one point in Origin Story, Wonder Man asks Iron Man why they're chasing down a teenage girl who hadn't actually committed any crimes before being imprisoned by SHIELD, isn't likely to be hurting people, and isn't really a menace to anyone. Tony's answer is “Because the law says we have to.”
  • Though he normally appears totally at ease with what he does, Monsignor Ryan in the Angel of the Bat stories confides that sometimes he struggles with whether to be a lawful priest or a good man. As a priest, he is supposed to be able to point to the Bible and instruct his parishioners accordingly. But he admits that as someone who has never been married, unexpectedly pregnant, or felt homosexual feelings, he feels he has no place to judge those struggling with divorce, abortion, or same-sex feelings, and wishes he could just be empathetic towards them. He ultimately chooses good over lawful when he tells his parishioner Cassandra he will keep her secret about her feelings for another woman, and will break canon law to give her communion because it just feels like the right thing to do.
  • One of the ongoing themes in This Bites! is whether Marines would choose Good over Law in a situation where the latter has grown increasingly corrupt.
  • Cross Ange The Knight Of Hilda: A police officer named Schwartz tries to stop his comrades from raping Hilda, which results in him being spared by Rio. Later, when he sees them drive off, even though it goes against everything he stands for as a police officer, he allows them to escape since Rio's mercy allowed him to return home to his family.

    Films — Animation 
  • A "neutral" example with M-O from WALL•E. His primary directive was to clean everything that comes onto the ship by following a lighted path, so his first encounter with WALL•E had not been that cordial since WALL•E was so filthy (that and WALL•E kept resisting, frustrating M-O). Later, when WALL•E leaves tracks all over the space dock while chasing EVE, M-O is faced with a dilemma. According to his programming, he has to stay within his lighted path, but he can't stand the dirty tracks being left all over the space dock. M-O eventually takes a Leap of Faith and jumps off the path. It buzzes at him, but he's still functioning, so he chuckles in delight and starts following the dirty tracks. He eventually catches up to WALL•E and gives him a proper cleaning, allowing the two to make up. As a result, M-O eventually joins the other robots to help EVE.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Aladdin (2019): When Jafar wishes himself into the Sultancy, he demands the guards serve him, as the law demands. Jasmine, as she is being led away, calls out to the head guard Hakim and essentially poses this question: will he follow the law and obey whoever the Sultan is (even if they are a tyrant), or will he remain loyal to the well-being of Agrabah’s people? While the guard Hakim chooses to uphold the law to serve the usurping Jafar just prior to this demand from Jasmine, he is moved by Jasmine's words and chooses loyalty to Jasmine, the Sultan, and the people of Agrabah, which spurs Jafar's Villainous Breakdown.
  • The Lives of Others: Weisler is a loyal Stasi agent, and genuinely believes spying on citizens is for the greater good. However, he soon realizes that higher-ups are abusing the system for their personal pleasure, and he has to decide whether to uphold the law or help those who are being taken advantage of by it.
  • Official Secrets: The dilemma of Gun and the other GCHQ staff: obey the law and see Britain help start an illegal war that (as we now know) will kill hundreds of thousands of people? Or leak the memo and risk prison and the loss of her husband's immigration status? The others Just Follow Orders; Katharine blows the whistle.
  • In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Will Turner frees and allies with pirate Captain Jack Sparrow to rescue Elizabeth after she is kidnapped. At the end of the film, after Jack has saved the day but is recaptured and sentenced to death, Will and Elizabeth intervene to prevent his hanging, leading to this memorable quote from Elizabeth's father, the governor:
    "Perhaps on the rare occasion pursuing the right course demands an act of piracy, piracy itself can be the right course?"
  • RoboCop 3: When the armed Rehab troopers try to evict a tenement slum with rather more force than is needed, Robocop arrives to help. When he sees the helpless and frightened tenants, he lists his Prime Directives as it cuts back and forth between the tenants and the Rehab troopers.note  He then turns to the troopers, his decision made.
    You're making a mistake.
  • In Superman: The Movie, Superman winds up in a Sadistic Choice situation. Lex Luthor's evil plan involves launching two missiles, one aimed at Hackensack, New Jersey and the other at the center of the San Andreas Fault. The mother of Lex's henchwoman, Miss Teschmacher, lives in Hackensack. She agrees to get rid of the Kryptonite that is leaving Superman helpless to do anything but only if he'll agree to stop the missile heading toward Hackensack first. Superman agrees and is true to his word, though more people — including Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen — are endangered by the earthquake triggered by the San Andreas Fault missile. Later on, he faces another choice. He destroys the missile headed for Hackensack, New Jersey, saving millions and keeping his promise, but in doing so is forced to let Lois Lane die. The dilemma comes when Superman decides to break Kryptonian law by using time travel to save her.
  • In Thor, Heimdall is bound by his oath to serve whomever is king of Asgard, no matter what he is told to do, and no matter how amoral his leader is. When Loki tells him he is to be banished from Asgard, Heimdall's response is "then I need no longer obey you!" as he immediately attacks Loki.
  • In TRON, Alan Bradley is less than thrilled by the suggestion to warn Flynn that Dillinger is onto his stunts, much less help (doubly so as Flynn used to date his fiancee). The lawful option would be to look the other way, let Flynn get busted, and allow Dillinger and Master Control run unchallenged. The "good" option involves a half-dozen felonies, misappropriation of corporate resources, and using the security program he's designed to shut the whole thing down. He takes "good."
  • In The Untouchables (1987), Eliot Ness struggles with this as the film progresses. At first, Ness insists he'll apply all legal means available to stop Al Capone's criminal empire, but eventually, he and the eponymous Untouchables start using more unscrupulous tactics to fight them.
    Mountie: [stunned] Mr. Ness, I do not approve of your methods.
    Ness: Well, you're not from Chicago.

    Myths & Religion 
  • Robin Hood jumps off the slippery slope to chaotic.
  • Sects of Christianity which include the existence of Satan as the great tempter and its antithesis Satanism can fit this depending on individual viewpoint. While some view Satan, the former angel Lucifer, as a force of evil others view him as an angel who chose to be good as he viewed it rather than uphold the laws of a deity. Many of the tenets of modern organized Satanism suggest the latter but ultimately have little to do with worship of a figure named Satan. Conversely, Jesus in Christian mythology chose to be lawful following the ordained series of events even though it was incredibly painful for himself and those around him. However, he was very fond of Loophole Abuse, stating that only those who are utterly perfect have the authority to execute a sinner, and that the Wages of Sin are death, sure, but if you accept Him as your Lord, it'll only be the physical death of life your sins earn, rather than the spiritual undeath of Hell, because the "old you" was executed by drowning when you get baptized. He did slap everyone with a huge Morton's Fork by saying (or perhaps clarifying) that Sins of Intent (lust, hatred, envy, etc) are just as bad as actually going out and having pre/extra-marital sex, murdering people, etc. though.
  • The Yazidi version of an Abrahamic myth of an angelic rebellion against God holds that, like Lucifer in the Judeo-Christian version, Melek Taus the Peacock Angel refused a command from God to bow down to mankind. The difference in the Yazidi version is that, rather than being jealous of humanity like Lucifer, Melek Taus viewed the command as unlawful in light of the First Commandment. God forgave him for this and placed the Earth under his care. (This myth is part of the reason the Yazidis have faced persecution by Muslims: the similarities between the myths have led to accusations of Devil-worship.)

  • In the musical Can-Can, the male lead Aristide, a judge, starts out believing that his job is to uphold the Law, even in a case where a law results in injustice. The events of the play cause his views to shift, and near the end, he states that he now considers his job to be to uphold Justice, and actively works to have unjust laws dismantled.
  • The musical version of Wicked deals with the protagonist's descent into wickedness due to crimes committed by those in power. In the finale of Act One, she chooses to be "evil" and stand for what she believes in despite being branded a criminal.

    Visual Novels 
  • Phoenix Wright and Miles Edgeworth from the Ace Attorney franchise are both faced with this decision, the former in Turnabout Goodbyes and the latter in Turnabout Ablaze. Both choose to reveal the truth even if they are defying their station in the justice system. However, as a rule, Edgeworth goes Lawful, Phoenix goes Good, and they trust each other to keep the balance without losing the truth.
    • The Yatagarasu, who took to theft when the justice system was not enough.
    • Edgeworth faces this again in "The Forgotten Turnabout" in the sequel to Investigations. When Kay is accused of murder and Edgeworth is warned that he will lose his prosecutor badge if he tries to help her, he chooses to do so, even getting arrested in the process.
    • Hammered home at the end of the fourth game is the series' ideal that Good over Lawful is always the right choice, as both the Judge and Klavier point out that the Law is always changing and adapting based on people's understanding of what is Good.
    • Complicating matters is Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies, where due process has been all but abandoned in the Dark Age of the Law, with both sides pursuing "Good" without caring if it's lawful. Edgeworth finds himself compelled to stand for Lawful because no one trusts the courts anymore — and recruits Phoenix back into the attorney life so that someone he trusts can stand for Good. At the end of the game, Edgeworth takes a path that suggests both are in play at the same time: he evicts all prosecutors from his district who would choose to break the rules of court over diligent and thorough investigation. In this outcome, there is no good that can come from being unlawful; a good prosecutor needs one to have the other.
  • Arthur of Tears to Tiara facs this problem often. He is keen on upholding the laws of his tribe (which are not particularly good and involve making dried heads out of people as solution to any problem), but is also a good person. Fortunately, other characters are willing to bend the rules to save their True Companions. By the middle of the game, Arawn manages to get him to take the good side of the debate.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY: In Volume 7, Penny Polendina finds herself torn between her loyalty to General Ironwood and her friendship with Ruby, especially when the former veers more and more into Knight Templar territory. In the latter half of Volume 7, Penny is the only one of Ironwood's subordinates to openly question the ethics of his decisions or methods, whereas Winter and the Ace-Ops are determined to follow his orders even if they feel uncomfortable with them. When Fria bequeaths the Winter Maiden powers to her, Penny decides to join Team RWBY in opposition to Ironwood rather than return to him. Winter and Marrow follow suit in Volume 8, once Ironwood's orders become too much for them to follow.

  • Freefall: Florence, whose brain is hard-wired to be lawful, finds herself with no option but to break into Ecosystems Unlimited and hack their servers to prevent the release of an update that would lobotomize every robot on the planet. Of course she turns herself in afterwards, if only to make public what an EU executive attempted to do on a planet where robots make up the vast majority of the population.
  • Cale, from Looking for Group wants to be Lawful Good but lives in an Evil Empire. He mixes options 1& 3, defying the Empire so he can create a Lawful Good kingdom.
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • Roy has his lawful credentials called into question during his interview in the afterlife. At the end of the interview however, it's determined that Roy can't be classified as Neutral Good because, for all his failings, Roy is trying, and cannot be held to the same standards as pure forces of Lawful Good.
    • Likewise, Miko's decision to kill Shojo in clear contravention of her Paladin's Code and, well, laws. Shame she was completely deluded at the time...
    • Lord Shojo found himself at odds between keeping the Gates safe from Xykon, and adhering to Soon's Oath, which says the Sapphire Guard is only charged in guarding Soon's Gate, and cannot interfere with the other four. Shojo respects that the Sapphire Guard won't go to any of the other gates, and won't force them to violate the law, so he hires the Order of the Stick to go instead. His real alignment is unconfirmed, but Belkar thinks he's Chaotic Good.note 

    Western Animation 
  • Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers: Zachary Foxx is normally much more of a By-the-Book Cop than the colorful team under his command. As the series progresses, he becomes far more willing to bend laws or exploit loopholes if a greater good is at stake, such as "Westride" where he stops the Black Hole Gang from an illegal land grab by moving a border marker and tricking them, thus putting them in territory where they can be arrested instead of across it where they wouldn't be subject to arrest.
  • Avengers Assemble: Faced with the increasingly overbearing Truman Marsh and the Inhuman Registration Act, the Avengers quit en masse. Marsh simply replaces them with a new team of Avengers who are more towards "lawful", though in a fight Songbird (on the Mighty Avengers) decides to side with "good" over "lawful". The next episode has the remaining Mighty Avengers come around because it turns out Truman cannot be reasoned with. And this is before he turns out to be Ultron.
  • Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: "Strange Invasion" when Team Lightyear crash lands on a planet that is an exact expy of Roswell, New Mexico, 1947, with the entire population consisting of The Greys. During their escape, the local sheriff helps them to escape simply because it is the right thing to do. The only reason he escapes any punishment is that the military officially went on record denying the entire event ever took place. The major who allowed them to escape, however...
    General: I want a word with you major, or should I say, private.
    Major: Loud Gulp.
  • Discussed by Shining Knight and a Super-Soldier General Eiling in the "Patriot Act" episode of Justice League Unlimited. Sir Justin tells a story of how King Arthur had ordered him to slaughter a village of innocent peasants, but refused to, (correctly) believing that Arthur was under a spell of madness. Eiling calls him a lousy soldier and beats the crap out of him.
  • In The Legend of Korra episode "The Aftermath", after spectacularly failing twice in her duties, Lin Beifong resigns from her position as the chief of the police... in order to take on Amon outside the law.

Examples of characters who fall from "good" status or do questionable things due to lawful constraints.

    Anime and Manga 
  • Bleach: Byakuya brought his family into disrepute by marrying a commoner and then honoring her dying wish to adopt and protect her sister, so he vowed before his parents' graves to always uphold the law. Rukia's execution sentence confounds Byakuya; he upholds the law instead of protecting her because Confucian values give parents higher status than wives. He is extremely grateful that Ichigo interferes with the execution and has now become an expert in committing legal Loophole Abuse to uphold what's Good.

    Comic Books 
  • The rationale behind the pro-registration heroes in Civil War. Apparently, it bit them really hard (more specifically with Iron Man).
  • X-Men: After M-Day, this trope afflicts Bishop more and more, as he's the only X-Man who wants to work with the unbelievably intrusive and obstructive Office of National Emergency, who basically turned the X-Mansion into an internment camp. By the time of Civil War, Bishop decides to quit and leave. The next time he's seen, he's decided to be neither Lawful or Good, and turns out to have been Evil All Along.

    Fan Works 
  • In The Dusk Guard Saga Blade Sunchaser needs to choose between doing the right thing and helping her friend Hunter, or staying true to her contract and preventing him from presenting evidence against her superiors. She chooses the latter, mostly because, as a griffin, the code (and her reputation as a direct result) is quite literally her life.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Black Panther, Okoye and the other Dora Milaje are sworn to serve and protect the king of Wakanda, whoever it may be. When Killmonger (seemingly) kills T'Challa and takes the throne, Okoye refuses to help Nakia rebel against him because of this; regardless of her (very negative) personal feelings towards Killmonger, he is the king. When T'Challa turns up alive, however, the Dora Milaje immediately take his side in the ensuing battle as the matter of the kingship is no longer settled.
  • The central conflict in A Few Good Men happens after Lance Corporal Dawson and PFC Downey chose Lawful, Dawson having previously been reprimanded for choosing Good.

  • In Antigone, the titular protagonist mentions that Eteocles was buried with honors, while Polyneices' body is denied proper burial, lying in the fields for scavenger birds to consume. Antigone asks Ismeme if she will be a loyal sister and help bury him (good) or be a traitor to her family (lawful); Ismene yields to the authority of King Creon mainly from fear of the penalty (lawful). Antigone decides to bury Polyneices' body by herself, rejecting Ismene's change of heart and her attempt to share the guilt, and declares that Ismene is dead to her. Later on, she is sealed away alive in a tomb and hangs herself with a noose made from her linen veil.
  • G(a)linda from Wicked. While her best friend Elphaba chooses to do what is right, she decides to do what is legal. She later regrets it, learning throughout the second act to Take a Third Option.


    Web Original 
  • Stormwolf of the Whateley Universe is so busy being lawful that he has to overlook little things like high school kids being beaten up through bullying, and a group of girls nearly being murdered by minions of Stormwolf's archenemy.

Examples of characters who Take A Third Option

    Anime and Manga 
  • Kaitou Saint Tail has Phantom Thief Saint Tail and her rival Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist Asuka Jr. start off on each end, with Asuka Jr. respecting her motives but believing "a thief is still a thief" while Saint Tail is a vigilante hero who helps expose criminals via decidedly illegal means. Over time, Asuka Jr. starts observing Saint Tail's impact on the people she helps and realizes he can't actually condemn her actions anymore, whereas on the other end, it turns out vigilantism can actually be very damaging to one's own mental health, since Meimi ends up being slowly worn down by the pressure of keeping secrets and the identity crisis from acting as an idealized hero figure who'll be worshipped as a shallow figure at best and scapegoated or even targeted by people with a grudge at worst. Eventually, the two meet in the middle: Meimi retires from being a phantom thief, while Asuka Jr. takes up her cause by becoming a Private Detective who's implied to head cases that involve the police as cooperators.
  • Athrun Zala is in this situation in the latter half of Mobile Suit Gundam SEED. After successfully defeating and apparently killing his Forgotten Childhood Friend who had ended up on the other side of the war, he returns home to discover that his Arranged Marriage fiance managed to not only save his friend's life but engineered a hijack on his behalf. Athrun is ordered to destroy or capture the friend, the fiance, and the Gundam, presenting him with a choice between My Country, Right or Wrong and Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!. Eventually he decides to Take a Third Option and works to remove his country's corrupt, extremist leadership while still defending its people from attack. This turns out to align him the very people he was meant to pursue, turning the war into a Mêlée à Trois. His ex-fiance was in fact engineering a coup with the same idea, and she managed to recruit the old friend because he also felt neither side was in the right.
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam 00, Celestial Being finds themselves in this situation when the Trinity team appears: ostensibly, the Trinities are on their side and part of their organization, and working for the same goals. But Celestial Being doesn't like the way the Trinities do things: they think the group takes things way too far and is overly brutal in their methods. After one of the Trinities blows up a wedding for no reason, however, Setsuna declares that the Trinities are "guilty of promoting conflict" and therefore are an acceptable target for one of Celestial Being's "Armed Interventions". After he attacks them, the rest of Celestial Being decides to support him because they were all having the same feelings he was having... he was just the only one gutsy enough to condemn their own allies.

    Comic Books 

  • Captain America: The First Avenger: Steve Rogers finds a solution to this paradox. When he is on the front lines as part of his goodwill tour, he finds out that his best friend has been captured by HYDRA, and requests permission to join the rescue. He is denied, as there will be no rescue; it's too dangerous. So Steve mounts the rescue by himself, saving hundreds of men and capturing a large amount of enemy equipment and intelligence. When he returns, he immediately salutes the commanding officer and turns himself in for disciplinary action. The commander, understandably, chooses to let it slide.

    Mythology and Religion 
  • In the New Testament, the Rules Lawyer Pharisees try to entrap Jesus with this dilemma on several occasions.
    • The story of the woman caught in adultery follows this to the letter. Jesus is asked to choose between imposing the death penalty by stoning for adultery (which would challenge the laws of the Roman empire at the time) or showing mercy (which would violate the letter of the Law of Moses). Instead, Jesus replied, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone!" This shames the mob and they leave defeated.
    • On another occasion, Jesus is presented with the chance to heal a man on the Sabbath, which they believed would violate the Laws of Moses.note  Jesus countered, "It is never against God's will to help those in need!" and proceeds to heal the man right in front of them. They don't take this very well at all.
    • In the Gospel of Luke, a lawyer asks Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what the law says, and he replies to love the Lord God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love his neighbor as himself. The lawyer then asks Jesus who his neighbor is; Jesus replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan who helped the man attacked by thieves by treating his wounds and taking him to an inn to recover, while the priest and Levite just passed by on the other side of the road. When Jesus asks which of them was a neighbor to the man attacked by the thieves, the lawyer is too embarrassed to say it was the Samaritan (due to unfriendliness between Jews and Samaritans), replying that it was the one who showed compassion to the man. Jesus tells him to go and do likewise.
    • Mainstream Christianity's interpretation of The Bible as a whole can be summed up as humanity giving God such a choice by allowing evil into their hearts: the lawful option is to Kill All Humans, but that's against God's loving nature. The good option is to simply forgive them, but that's against God's just nature. God's solution? Become human, absorb the punishment for their evil into Himself, and then forgive humans, justice and love both fulfilled.

  • Minmax of Goblins faced a dilemma when he encountered Kin. As an adventurer with a typical Munchkin view of the game world, he was obliged by all aspects of his personality and character-build to kill her. His comrade manages to hold him at bay and they come to the agreement that if Minmax can find just one normal thing about Kin he'll let her live. Minmax tries this but finds she is simply too alien to his worldview to share any common ground. Faced with the need to kill her and no excuse of normality, Minmax chooses to create one by setting up a birthday party. After all, if Kin celebrates her birthday, he has common ground with her.

    Western Animation 
  • Aang, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, struggles a great deal with whether or not to kill Fire Lord Ozai at the end. He is advised by numerous people, including another airbender and Ozai's own son, to kill him, but being a Martial Pacifist, Aang is resistant to such a direct use of violence, even to save the world. In the end, he is able to remove Ozai's bending, which renders him mostly harmless.

Characters who end up swinging between options, or are hit by this dilemma twice and are inconsistent on the issue.

    Anime and Manga 
  • The priest Carlo Belbard of Bokura no Kiseki often seems troubled by this debate. At first he gives off the impression of Lawful Neutral, following the rules of the Church regardless of personal feelings or questions of right and wrong; when other priests of the Church seem to lean towards Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!, he pulls them back to the Lawful side. However, it's often clear he'd like to do what he feels is right even when it goes against Church law, particularly when it comes to helping out his Childhood Friend, Veronica. Considering he died and reincarnated along with the rest of the cast of the past, and that his reincarnation Ootomo can't seem to remember how he died, it's implied that at the very end he chose Good and went to help Veronica when her castle was invaded.
  • Suzaku Kururugi of Code Geass is a good person, but leans more towards the "Law" side — he recognizes that the Britannian Empire is horribly corrupt, but believes that the way to fix things is to peacefully reform it from within, rather than fomenting open rebellion the way Zero does. However, the Powers That Be keep yanking the rug out from under him, which ultimately results in his joining Zero's side near the end of the series.
    • Early in the second season, Lelouch even puts this type of question to the highly honorable Guilford, asking what he would do if faced with an insurmountable evil who cannot be defeated by strictly moral methods. Guilford proudly says he'd stick to his principles, while Lelouch responds that he'd gladly Pay Evil unto Evil if the end result is positive.
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, this is the crux of Major Armstrong’s character arc: during the Ishvalan War, he found himself torn between his sense of duty (which demanded he stand by his fellow soldiers and follow orders) and his sense of justice (which demanded he stand against the evils brought about by the obviously unjustified war). The internal conflict eventually caused him to have a nervous breakdown and get shipped back home for the remainder of the war. In the present, he feels deeply ashamed over not speaking out about the injustices, feeling that he disgraced himself and the law he holds in such high regard by doing so. He essentially feels that there’s no real difference between “lawful” and “good” if you’re following the spirit of the law rather than the letter.
  • Negi of Negima! Magister Negi Magi tends to swing back and forth depending on the situation. For example, he opposes Chao Lingshen simply because if he doesn't, he'll be turned into an ermine, and she can't give him a good enough reason to justify making that sacrifice. On most other occasions, he tends to bend or outright ignore any rules that get in the way of doing what is truly good.
    • That's more an issue of Gray and Gray morality. In that Negi can't decide if helping her is actually the right thing to do, his big morality dilemma is which path is right. He eventually decides that the answer is to fight her as the right thing to do. It just happens to stand on the same side with Lawful.

    Fan Works 
  • Red Witch's Galaxy Rangers fanfics play it both ways with the characters of Walsh and Zachary. Walsh traded Lawful Good for Lawful Neutral, especially when grilled about the Supertrooper Project, and eventually crosses the line when he pulls a few less than ethical stunts and finally attempts to murder Senator Wheiner and vanishes. Zachary is, at heart, a believer in justice more than he is a believer of law, and when it's found out that certain elements of Earth's Government dabbled in things like staging death-matches among the Supertroopers, and government condoned genocide of Niko's homeworld due to Fantastic Racism, the good captain is justifiably pissed off, and ready to space "lawful" in order to expose and stop their crimes. Saying he goes Papa Wolf if you threaten his loved ones is like saying the ocean's a mite damp.
  • This is how Adrien feels about the Lila situation in Marinette Dupain-Cheng's Spite Playlist. On one hand, he knows that she's a terrible liar who's manipulating everyone. But exposing her means stirring up tons of drama for their whole class, and runs the risk of her getting akumatized again. And that's not even getting into the issue of figuring out how to get the others to believe him. Even after finding the resolve to act, Adrien balks at any methods that strike him as 'underhanded' and 'sneaky', afraid that exercising even a little bit of guile is the same as 'sinking to her level'. Unfortunately for him, his cleaner methods are easily countered by Lila, who starts escalating her behavior as payback. He does eventually settle on a "middle of the road" approach that does what he needs while minimizing the blowback that will inevitably result but it's rough going before that point.

    Films - Animated 
  • Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: Police captain George Stacy finds out his teenage daughter Gwen is Spider-Woman, the masked vigilante he believes murdered family friend Peter in cold blood. She did kill him, but the situation is way more complicated than George believes; it was an accident, she didn't realize the rampaging supervillain at her prom was Peter, and he would've killed everyone there if she hadn't stopped him. When George encounters Spider-Woman, he begins to put her under arrest for Peter's murder, prompting her to reveal herself... and, after a moment of Stunned Silence, he continues reading her Miranda Rights, despite her pleas for him to stop being a cop for one second and just be her father. This leads Gwen to become The Runaway. By the end of the movie, he's had a lot of time to reflect and dearly regrets his actions, and when Gwen comes home, he decides to resign from the force and keep her secret.

    Mythology & Religion 
  • Arthurian Legend:
    • King Arthur and his knights sometimes face this dilemma. Merlin usually escapes it — in fact, he's generally depicted as Chaotic Neutral.
    • Depending on the legend, Arthur either feels constrained to punish the best knight in the world and the woman he loves because the law demands it, or works very hard at not doing so until events force the issue.
    • The Knights of the Round Table often find themselves in situations where obeying the letter of the Code of Chivalry means allowing an injustice to occur. Sometimes they choose Law and sometimes Good. Sir Balin is a character defined by choosing Law over Good; everything he does goes wrong because he obeys the Code without considering the situation first. The Grail Quest has far too many knights failing to be lawful or good, thereby proving themselves unworthy.

  • Baron Klaus Wulfenbach of Girl Genius is a rare case where the Lawful Good character trying to navigate the minefield ends up hammered because in the end he couldn't choose a side; upon embarking on his "conquest" of Europa, he simply set two rules: #1 Don't Attack Me. #2 Don't Play With Sealed Evil in a Can. Do either of these things and he will Come Over There and make you stop, then take all your stuff as punishment. The problems started because he refused to either kill his foes unless they refused to surrender(Good), nor create a labyrinth of rules for his conquered foes to manipulate(Lawful). Thus unpunished and unoccupied, they proceeded to plot and scheme and smear him, meaning that though he's become the single best ruler in recorded history, he has a 0% Approval Rating, and all it took was one bad day for it all to come crashing down.

    Web Original 
  • Team Kimba in the Whateley Universe started out as being on the side of good but wanting to do things lawfully. Unfortunately, they didn't know the rules for the most part, but since they've learned them, they generally either find a way to handle things that won't get them in trouble, follow the rules exactly if the matter is minor, or, if it's really an emergency, say 'fuck it' and do the good thing anyway.

    Western Animation 
  • Justice League Unlimited: When Cadmus begins acting against the Justice League, Captain Atom is forced to choose between his loyalty to his country (lawful) and his devotion to his friends (good). At first it seems like he’s going to choose Cadmus, even getting into a fight with Superman, but when they launch an all-out assault on the Watchtower, he definitively sides with the League and helps fight off Cadmus’ Ultimen army.

Examples of To Be Chaotic or Good

In Western Sources, the default choice is "Chaotic" so often that it may be hard to spot the choice.

  • In Pixar's Brave, the princess does not wish to have an arranged marriage; however, if she does not marry one of the other clans' princes, they will all be offended and the kingdom will likely fall into civil war. Valuing one's own choices over tradition and law is a Chaotic stance; preventing a civil war is obviously Good. As usual, neither the princess nor the movie angsts much over choosing Chaotic, since the three princes weren't keen on the whole "contest for her hand," either.
  • In Casablanca, Ilsa can flee to safety with either her husband Laszlo, an important Resistance leader, or Rick, the man she really loves. Rick sends her away with Lazlo, who needs Ilsa by his side to keep up the fight because beating the Nazis is more important than what Rick or Ilsa might want personally. One of the few sources where Good (beating the Nazis) is chosen instead of Chaos (abandoning/ignoring marriage vows).

Examples of To Be Chaotic or Evil

Examples of To Be Lawful or Evil

  • Baron Ragoon in Hello, from the Magic Tavern is an openly evil (but friendly) supporter of the Dark Lord, who seized control of Shrike Valley while the boy-king Dartholomew (who the main cast have interviewed) was away. Since the bad baron is specifically Lawful Evilinvoked, he goes out of his way to avoid the boy-king lest his loyalty to the Dark Lord conflict with that to his lawful liege.