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What Is One Man's Life In Comparison?

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Nibbler: What is one life, when weighed against the entire universe?
Fry: [distraught] But it was my life.

A character is expected to make some sort of Heroic Sacrifice for the greater good, either Because Destiny Says So or Utopia Justifies the Means. The only problem is... nobody ever told him. When he disagrees with his apparent fate, whoever expects him to give up his life willingly expresses the sentiment of "What is one man's life worth when weighed against the entire world?" or something similar.

Depending on the character, after being told this, he may or may not oblige.

Compare A Million Is a Statistic, The Needs of the Many, Powered by a Forsaken Child and What You Are in the Dark.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Kyubey has this mindset, which is pretty much a requirement when it's your job to harvest the despair of those that become Witches because of the deal that you made with them in order to save the rest of the universe from entropy. In fact it can't think any other way: it has no emotions, and therefore sees everything through logic and reason. Sacrificing one life for the good of many others is a logical (if not always moral) thing to do, so naturally it views this as acceptable. Kyubey cannot even comprehend why humans value one life when there's six billion of them and growing: "Your population is over six billion right now, and four more of you are born every ten seconds, so why do you make such a big deal out of the loss of just one of you?"
  • Naruto: The Fourth Hokage discusses this with Kushina about sealing the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox into their son Naruto, damning him to a childhood of loneliness and misery, in order to protect the village and country from the masked man who released the fox in the first place. He himself doesn't like it, but there's no other option that doesn't end with everyone, including Naruto in the future, suffering if/when the masked man gets his hands on the fox.
  • In Bokurano, the pilots of Zearth, once chosen, have 48 hours to complete their battle- the loser's universe is destroyed, and the chosen pilots die even if they win, from having their life force drained to power Zearth. Naturally, some of them do not take this well, especially not Chizu, who, learning that she is going to die, plans to kill the men who gang-raped her, having planned on a murder-suicide until she discovered she was pregnant.
    Chizu: Then tell me, Why do I have to die? Why do I have to die? Why does this baby have to die? Circumstance? Coincidence? Inevitability? Fate? For the past month, those are all I've thought about. And I've decided... that the death of any person is meaningless.
  • Fate/kaleid liner PRISMA☆ILLYA: Julian Ainsworth wants to save his world, which is running out of mana and will eventually become uninhabitable, but his method is to sacrifice Miyu to the Holy Grail, declaring one little girl does not outweigh a world. He captures Miyu and drives her to despair to try to make her willingly sacrifice herself, but the heroes rescue her. When Illya declares she will somehow find a way to save the world without sacrificing Miyu, Julian's cynicism, refusal to admit he could be wrong, and desire to save the world himself to become a legend makes him unwilling to even consider alternative options. He angrily declares anyone who opposes his goal to be evil.

  • Green Lantern Hal Jordan fought in the Corps' first war against Nekron when he entered the Death God's nether world to distract him enough to allow the Corps to drive back Krona's army while the Guardians to seal the inter-dimensional rift. At all this, Jordan's energy field is decaying rapidly as he sees himself being trapped in that other dimension and will die instantly once it fails. The one comfort Jordan thinks that it's his life for the trillions upon trillions of lives he helped save, a really flattering trade when you think about it. Fortunately, at that moment, the spirit of Jordan's predecessor, Abin Sur, helps his successor escape the rift.
  • In an old Spider-Man comic he ends up fighting over an antidote against the Inhumans. Spider-Man needs it to save the life of a man who saved him and MJ from being hit by a truck, the Inhumans need it to prevent a doomsday device from destroying the world. After they fight Spidey finally explains why he needs it and Black Bolt flies to the hospital with the rest of the antidote. In the end Gorgon tells Spider-Man that saving the entire world was important enough to risk the death of the man, since what is one life compared to all others. Spider-Man's reply is along the lines "If you have to ask, you will never know the answer."

    Fan Works 
  • Zig-Zagged in Izuku Midoriya the Rabbit. The Hero Commission doesn't particularly care about Eri and the fact that she is being tortured by the Yakuza, since she's just one girl. After learning why they're torturing her (to make quirk erasing bullets using her blood), however, they scramble to rescue her as the Commission doesn't want the Yakuza to gain the upper hand against them since they were already down three of their top heroesnote .
    What was one girl when they were protecting an entire nation?
  • As the overseers state in Tower of Babel, two lives against millions is just math. Since itís his own and his daughterís lives they are talking about, Shadowlord disagrees.

  • In the Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen, Megatron asks this of Optimus Prime when they are fighting over the knowledge implanted in Sam Witwicky's brain by a shard of the Allspark. Optimus knows better, though.
    Megatron: Is the fate of our planet not even worth a single human life?
    Optimus: You'll never stop at one.
  • In Stranger Than Fiction, the protagonist is told that he should allow the writer to kill him off, as the contribution to the world's literature as a whole is more important than his own life. It's implied that he ultimately decides to sacrifice himself, not for literature's sake, but to save a little boy. This ends up prompting the writer to rethink her whole approach.
  • Main plot point of the movie The Pink Panther Strikes Again. Dryfus creates a doomsday device and blackmails the world with it. All he wants is for someone to kill Clouseau.
  • In the film Sunshine, a character comes close to mentioning this trope by name.
  • Invoked twice in Flash Gordon: first by Zarkov and then by Flash himself, when faced with the prospect of having to sacrifice themselves to save the Earth. "It's not madness, it's a rational transaction: one life in exchange for millions."
  • Ben 10: Alien Swarm: A variation; near the end of the film, both Gwen and Kevin are in favor of killing Victor Validus to stop the Hive nanochips, using this very argument. Ben, being Ben, refuses to consider it, insisting that he saves victims.
  • In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Sarah Connor leaves John and T-800 to assassinate Miles Dyson, the creator of Skynet. When John goes to stop her, T-800 points out that if they let Sarah kill Dyson, Skynet will never come to exist, preventing Judgment Day and allowing the Connors live without fear of having more Terminators sent after them. John denies this.
  • This is the ultimate purpose of The Cabin in the Woods, as it is necessary for a small group of people to be sacrificed in a highly ritualized way to prevent the apocalypse. Worse, it's revealed that there are multiple rituals happening all around the world, and only one actually needs to succeed to keep the world safe. It just so happens that all but the protagonists' had failed already, with zero casualties.
  • Assassin's Creed (2016): The Spanish sect of the Assassin Brotherhood is very upfront to new initiates that they will likely be asked to take one for the team. In fact, the entire team might have to do so as well. When the alternative is the Templar Order mind controlling the rest of humanity into eternal slavery, the initiates agree. Maria, in particular, is insistent that Aguilar sacrifice her if it is necessary.
  • The Vision tries to convince Wanda Maximoff of this in Avengers: Infinity War, telling her that trillions of lives lost should Thanos take the Mind Stone from his head is too significant to be worth protecting his life over. Both Wanda and Steve Rogers are reluctant to agree to this initially and start seeking out alternate solutions but eventually the decision is made for them when Thanos comes to claim the Mind Stone as the last one he needs to complete the Infinity Gauntlet. Wanda manages to go through with it and destroys the Mind Stone, killing The Vision but it's All for Nothing as Thanos uses his newly-acquired Time Stone to reverse it and rips the Mind Stone out of Vision's head himself to complete the Infinity Gauntlet.
    • Comes back again in Avengers: Endgame, in a way that makes it retroactively apply to Infinity War too. Dr Strange, after scrying countless futures with the Time Stone, takes steps to nudge matters so that not only does Vision die as above, but Black Widow makes a Heroic Sacrifice to claim the Soul Stone and Iron Man makes one to kill Thanos and his army with an improvised Infinity Gauntlet - essentially having to sacrifice three people, plus the indirect casualties of the Snap, in order to ensure Thanos's defeat. Fortunately for everyone, both Natasha and Tony are heroes who make the sacrifice play when it turns out to be necessary, and Nat goes so far as to actively fight Clint Barton so that she's the required sacrifice and not him.
    • Dr. Strange continues to grapple with this trope in Spider-Man: No Way Home, and in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. In the former, after the spell he attempts to cast for Peter ends up bringing in Spider-Man villains from alternate realities, Strange judges the simplest solution to contain the spell and prevent reality from fracturing around them to be the return of these villains from whence they came, which would result in their deaths. In the latter, his 'Defender Strange' alternate counterpart had come close to sacrificing America Chavez's life to ensure that her power of multiversal travel did not fall into the wrong hands, and Strange himself nearly reaches a similar conclusion. In each case, he makes reference to how, "in the grand calculus of the multiverse", the lives in question would be worth less than their sacrifice.

  • In A Brother's Price, the villains think like this about their own family. They'll sacrifice their own people if it means that their goal will be achieved.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, this is Melisandre's justification for wanting to sacrifice Edric Storm. She says that the sacrifice is necessary, and if they don't do it, Edric will die anyway along with everyone else when the Long Night comes.
    • However, there was no guarantee that the sacrifice would work, and all indications seemed to point towards it never working. Melisandre is such a fanatic however, that she often refuses to see the flaws or failures of her plans.
  • In Dragon Bones, Ward pretends to think like this when it comes to killing his uncle in order to become the Hurogmeten of Hurog in his uncle's place - not that he wants to kill his uncle, but it's necessary. Later on, his allies can convince Ward that, in order to save everyone, he has to kill Oreg, who is willing to make that Heroic Sacrifice and has deliberately manipulated things so that Ward has no other choice.
  • In Harry Potter, the titular character discovers that he has to die in order for Voldemort to be defeated. He takes this attitude towards his own death. Of course, he ends up living anyway.
  • In Enchantress from the Stars, if a Federation agent is captured, and it stands to reason that he or she cannot prevent divulging information about The Federation, the agent is supposed to commit suicide. Of course Elana, the main protagonist, is only told this after she is captured during the action which she probably wouldn't undertaken had she known this beforehand.
    • And since her father doesn't quite trust her to commit suicide he secretly sends her fiancé to either free or kill her, only stopping the plan at the last second. Double facepalm since earlier he explicitly declined giving her the order to die.
      • Of course, Elana, after discovering the way The Empire treats its captives, actually finds the idea attractive.
  • The Tango Briefing by Adam Hall. British spy Quiller has to parachute in with a backpack nuke to destroy a crashed plane filled with canisters of nerve gas. But the detonator is smashed and there's no time to parachute in another one. Realising he's going to have to detonate the bomb manually, Quiller asks Loman to spell out exactly what his Heroic Sacrifice will achieve. Loman does so, and Quiller sardonically lampshades the trope in his thoughts. There's no question of him refusing however.
  • Brotherhood Of The Rose by David Morrell. CIA spymaster Eliot uses this argument to justify setting up his surrogate sons to be killed; in doing so he has saved thousands of lives. Saul is not impressed. "You don't betray the ones you love! I don't know any of those people. I'm not sure I'd even like them."

    Live Action Television 
  • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "In the Pale Moonlight", Garak kills a bunch of people for the greater good, and then, when Sisko objects, gives this little speech:
    "That's why you came to me, isn't it, Captain? Because you knew I could do those things that you weren't capable of doing? Well, it worked. And you'll get what you want: a war between the Romulans and the Dominion. And if your conscience is bothering you, you should soothe it with the knowledge that you may have just saved the entire Alpha Quadrant. 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."
  • Star Trek: Picard: At the end of season 2, Picard asks Q why he's been so focused on him for over three decades. He assumes it's for some grand purpose, only for Q to point out that the only reason is because Picard is important to him, and that's all the reason for it.
    "Does everything have to be of galactic importance? Universal consequences? Celestial upheaval? Isn't one life enough? You ask me why it matters. It matters to me. You matter. To me. Even gods can have favorites, Jean-Luc. You've always been one of mine."
  • Doctor Who:
    • The Doctor leaves a lot of people as necessary victims of history, time or (in)convenience, sometimes directly against their will. He gets the other part of the rope in "The End of Time", where he revolts against destiny as being more important and having the power to do much more before entering into the ready-to-kill chamber.
    • And occasionally, and memorably, he'll absolutely refuse to make the sacrifice: one example is Pete Tyler, Rose's father, whose rescue from his would-be death upsets the timestream to the point that the entire planet is apparently on the brink of destruction, and the Doctor refuses to kill Pete again — even at the cost of his own life.
  • In Babylon 5 this is invoked to G'Kar by Ambassador Kosh (appearing as G'Kar's father, "Some must be sacrificed so that all may be saved." The encounter changes G'Kar from a revenge-driven Narn patriot into a self-sacrifical warrior. However, G'Kar later realizes this isn't a statement about the future but explanation of not revealing the Shadows were helping the Centauri. This is because while there are millions of Narns dead now after the war, had the Shadows been outed during or before the side of Good was ready, billions of Narns would be dead.
  • Used beautifully during Angel Season 5 in the episode "A Hole in the World"; as Fred is dying from being infected with Illyria's essence, Angel and Spike make their way to the Deeper Well, the graveyard of the Old Ones, in order to find a way to stop it and save her. While Drogyn does say they can save her by drawing Illyria back to the Well, he states that, because Illyria's essence has been freed from containment, it will essentially become an airborne virus and spread to every person between the Deeper Well and Los Angeles, killing tens-to-hundreds of thousands of innocents. Though they do briefly consider it, Angel and Spike ultimately can't sacrifice all those people for one person, and are forced to let Fred die.
    Spike: Thousands would have died if we'd saved her. She wouldn't have wanted that.
  • In The Outer Limits (1995) episode "The Sentence", Dr. Henson tries to claim that the potential benefits of his Lotus-Eater Machine virtual prison would far outweigh the unfortunate death of a young innocent man (the machine wasn't designed to accomodate innocent people and the stress of the experience killed him). No one else agrees and he is sentenced to twenty years in prison with no chance of parole. Near the end of his sentence, Dr. Henson confesses to the prison's therapist that he was wrong to think this way, asking himself "what's one life?" again before breaking down in tears. The twist is that his entire sentence was actually a simulation fed into his mind by his machine. He had actually succeeded in rescuing the young man, but he was unable to leave the machine in time, forcing him to go through an entire virtual sentence. The horror of his ordeal convinces Dr. Henson that his virtual prison is a bad idea... too bad the previously skeptical Senator now thinks it's just what the country needs.

  • In Sound Horizon's Moira, fed up with the way Moira torments and manipulates people in life, Thanatos concocts a plan to confront and overthrow her - a plan which involves tormenting and manipulating a man all through his life. The final two tracks of the album imply that not only did this plan fail, but that Thanatos has since been futilely attempting this plan over and over again for gods knows how long.

  • From The Bible - "Neither do you consider that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not." — John 11:50 (Douay-Reims).
    • The irony in this verse is Lampshaded in the next verse, which says that the High Priest was speaking in his role as a prophet at the time, even though he didn't realize the implications of what he was saying.
  • Likewise The Book of Mormon - "Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief." — 1 Nephi 4:12.

  • La Belle Helene (a spoof of the Trojan War by Jacques Offenbach) has Agammemnon and Calchas demand Menelaus sacrifice himself to prevent the domestic uproar gripping Greece, telling him it's for the good of all humanity. Menelaus instead asks the high priests of Venus for advice, but as said priest is Paris in disguise, Menelaus gets sent to Cythera so Paris and Helene can adulterize in peace.

    Video Games 
  • In SaGa Frontier, after defeating his twin in a Wizard Duel, Blue finds out that he was Split at Birth and manipulated into killing his other self so he'd become the ultimate magician and waltz into Hell in order to protect the Magic Kingdom from the demons within. Upon finding out, he initially refuses because the idea of the kingdom's existence being "much more important than any magician's life" is the most selfish thing he'd ever heard.
  • At the end of Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, Kain is given the choice between sacrificing his own life to restore balance to the world, or using the power he has accumulated to "rule the world in its ruination" - and furthermore, he had been deliberately manipulated towards this end, by someone who expected him to make the 'selfless' choice. He refuses, and so the sequel Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver kicks off in the Crapsack World that results. As the Mind Screw threads of the Timey-Wimey Ball are slowly unravelled, and the true identity of The Man Behind the Man is revealed, however, it turns out that Kain's decision was the better option for the world. If he DID sacrifice himself, it would only condemn the world to dance at the strings of an unknowable Eldritch Abomination. After Kain learns this, he chose to appear as a villain, while carefully engineering the timestream, pushing it to the point where he could "make the coin land on the edge", creating a Third Option for the dilemma. He is also trying to find a way to fix everything without condemning Raziel to his fate to become part of the Soul Reaver. Sadly, he fails since Raziel himself ultimately decides he needs to join the Reaver to save Nosgoth and tricks Kain into impaling him with it.
  • Used near the end of Fire Emblem: Awakening, but with a twist: Robin is perfectly fine with the idea of sacrificing him/herself to kill the Fell Dragon Grima for good instead of temporarily sealing him. It's their best friend (or husband) Chrom who opposes this idea, and Robin quotes this trope to try convincing him that this is the right decision - though in the end, it's up to the player to decide. Though even if the player decides to sacrifice Robin, the post-credits cutscene shows that they survive through the magic of friendship anyways.
  • Fatal Frame: All over the place, since the only thing keeping the each Hell Gate from opening and causing Hell on Earth is a Human Sacrifice killed in some horrifying way. Every single game is the result of someone rejecting this system and the Hell Gate opening to consume the surrounding area with Malice and transforming the would-be Barrier Maiden into a Person of Mass Destruction while condemning every human unfortunate enough to be in the blast radius to a Fate Worse than Death. Was It Really Worth It? Nope.
  • In The Elder Scrolls, Meridia, a Daedric Prince whose sphere is obscured to mortals, but is associated with Life Energy, Light, and Beauty, is a big believer in this trope. She will sacrifice innocent lives, even those of her loyal followers, in an instant if it means achieving a greater good (at least in her opinion). She has an extreme hatred of anything undead, which can quickly put her into full-blown Knight Templar mode toward wiping out any undead. This, and the belief among most mortals that she is one of the "good" (if not always nice) Daedra can drive her into Tautological Templar territory. That means that she feels any action she takes is therefore good, and anyone who opposes or abandons her is evil. She will thus deal with them appropriately.
  • Danganronpa has a few examples:
    • In Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair's final trial, the survivors have to decide whether to sacrifice themselves to keep Junko Enoshima trapped, or get out of the simulation but cause the world to end all over again.
    • In Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony's 2nd trial, Kirumi's motive boils down to this. What are the lives of 14 high school students, even talented ones, against the lives of every citizen of Japan?
  • Tales of Berseria: Deconstructed. The Anti Heroine of our story, Velvet Crowe, firmly believes that her little brother's life was not worth stopping a demonic invasion, and her quest for revenge on the man who made that call is the source of her (considerable) heartbreak and rage. The tragic irony, however, is her little brother did knowingly sacrifice himself after all.

  • In Marilith, one corrupt cop says this about letting Valentino note  roam free:
    "What's the lives of two girls against dismantling most crime in the area?"
  • Paranatural: Forge says a life can be worth more than the world, which is worth nothing if the 'greater good' burns it to ash. Spender thinks it's worth less than a town of ten thousand, which is about taking responsibility for your actions, not regretting the things you've done to protect others.
    Forge: For you, good is a rational act. It's rules, it's calculations, it's your choices plugged into a grand equation, added up, up into evils vanquished. Ideals upheld. Civilizations saved. How the worth of a few lives pales before such greater goods! What is three, two lives, one life weighed against the world? The world is nothing! Nothing!! Why couldn't we see this, you and I?! We burn the present for the sake of a brighter future and act surprised when all it holds is ash! No, if our minds decide the sum of small evils is a greater good, then it is our hearts that are rational.
    Spender: Please. Did your heart tell you to scrape open the length of the ghost train? It seems to me a bit more calculation then would have prevented the mistake you're so desperate to make my responsibility. But I suppose you were too focused on the immediate good of... what, mangling a spirit? Escaping from me? You're selfish. You don't care about the future, you just want to feel good about your actions in the present. Well that's not who I am. Mayview is my greater good. It's every person I love and have loved plus ten thousand more, and protecting its future is my purpose. Everything else is secondary. [...] I like to keep my hands clean, but if reality insists, I won't let shortsighted morality trump practical solutions.

    Western Animation 
  • Discussed in the Batman Beyond episode "Babel." Shriek gives an ultimatum, threatening to destroy Gotham unless Batman surrenders himself, and numerous people in the city all shout for Batman to give himself up. Max points out that if Terry did decide to give himself up to Shriek to save the city, that the fallout wouldn't just be limited to himself, but his family still recovering from Warren's death, his friends, and his girlfriend would all be affected. Not to mention Bruce himself who's had more than a few tragedies, too many regarding his proteges. When Bruce asks him if he would've answered Shriek's demands if he didn't find out where he is, Terry changes the subject.
  • In Futurama, Fry was originally frozen so he'd survive long enough to save the universe in the year 3000, but because the Nibblonians were afraid he'd say "no", they never gave him a choice in the matter. Fry himself says he likes the future but hates being used as an expendable life without consenting.
  • In the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode "The Last Patrol!", the Doom Patrol are forced to let a single hostage die at the hands of General Zahl to save the millions of people in Paris. The trauma of this caused the Patrol to split up. They are brought back again, this time with the General threatening to destroy an island fishing village if the Patrol don't take the places of its people. This time, they DO make the sacrifice — and Zahl kills them. However, since their deaths are broadcast over the world's airwaves, this final sacrifice causes them to be admired all the world over. Zahl is forced to admit to himself that because of this, even in death, the Doom Patrol had beaten him once again. The island's people rename it "Four Heroes."
  • In Justice League, J'onn Jonzz, the Martian Manhunter, really seemed to have taken to using this trope. When Doctor Fate attempted to reason with AMAZO, who had been walking all over the entire League, J'onn pulled this trope. And Fate's response?
    "Those words are always used to justify destruction."
    • The next time was when Mister Miracle's friend Oberon was kidnapped by Granny Goodness and Miracle asked for help from the League. J'onn refused because it would only help to put order into Apokolips, thus risking them turning their attention to Earth. Apparently he thought Flash wasn't looking at the big picture when he wanted to help. Flash thought the League was all about helping.
    • These incidents are part of Jonzz's negative character development as he becomes more and more detached from people as a result of isolating himself on the Justice League satellite. In the end, he goes on leave to find himself.
  • In Code Lyoko, the Benevolent A.I. Aelita (she eventually gets an Unrobotic Reveal, but the heroes don't learn that for a long time) is trapped in the virtual world Lyoko with the evil AI XANA. XANA wants to kill all humans, and while shutting down the supercomputer would kill XANA, but Aelita die with him. This is a large moral dilemma throughout the first and second seasons of this show. Jeremy is in love with Aelita and thus refuses all attempts to trade Aelita's life, and Odd generally agrees with him, but both Ulrich and Yumi often favor shutting down the supercomputer. Aelita is very selfless and is generally inclined to offer her own life to stop XANA as well; she once even takes matters into her own hands with an attempted Heroic Suicide shutting down the supercomputer before Jeremy stops her. This becomes moot in Season 3 when both Aelita and XANA are freed from Lyoko, meaning Aelita is no longer reliant on the computer to live and XANA is no longer easily stoppable.