The Hero is alone, except, perhaps, for the villain. No one whose opinion he cares about—possibly no one at all—will ever need to know what he does next, and he knows it. And there is a useful but corrupt act that he could commit, reaping the benefit without anyone ever knowing. If he does not do it, the consequences can be severe, even deadly. If the villain is there, he is urging the hero to do it, which possibly involves cleaning up any possible witnesses. Very likely, he is at his Darkest Hour, even on the verge of the Despair Event Horizon.
The Stock Phrase is usually something like "No one will ever know." It can taunt him with the futility of his heroism (perhaps even telling him that he will die alone, unmourned, with no one attending his funeral, unremembered), or tempt him with the rewards of villainy, even telling him that the heroic act will be interpreted as villainy, and vice versa. A more foolish and friendly villain may urge it's Not Cheating Unless You Get Caught.
What happens next?
Usually he is, because doing the right thing in the face of great temptation is a mark of great heroism, whereas doing the wrong is only bog standard, baseline villainy. When the wrong path is taken, this is usually the lead to more impressively villainous acts. Occasionally, it is to prove Can't Get Away with Nuthin': a character loots a corpse, only to discover it can be identified.
If a villain is urging that no one will ever know, three responses are possible, depending on the hero's character:
- "I'll know." (The hero can't live with himself if he fails this test.)
- "God/Heaven/the gods/[my dead parent/friend/mentor] will know." (The hero doesn't feel he's really in the dark. Often overlaps with #1, if the hero's devoutly religious.)
- "You'll know." (Vaguely anti-heroic: the hero can't live with the thought of his enemy winning in any way, he realizes the villain will now have something to blackmail him with, or he simply wants to deny the villain even the smallest of victories over him out of spite.)
The usual Aesop of this trope revolves around the idea that anyone can do the right thing when all the attention is placed on them and it would be inconvenient to do so, but it takes real strength of character—and heroism—to do the heroic thing when no one is watching and there's nothing to lose. This may carry an unfortunate implication that most humans aren't bastards only when Big Brother Is Watching.
Super Trope of Silent Scapegoat. Antonym of Photo Op with the Dog. Often a prerequisite for a We Can Rule Together offer made to a hero. Compare Invisible Jerkass, Dude, Where's My Reward?, Strike Me Down with All of Your Hatred, G.I.F.T.. See also The Greatest Story Never Told and Zero-Approval Gambit. See Shoot the Dog for when there are arguments for the morality of both actions. See Hidden Heart of Gold for when a Jerkass turns out to be a nice person on the inside. May involve The Corrupter. This test of character always reveals what is Beneath the Mask. If a character erroneously believes that nobody will know what he's doing, he can find himself at the wrong end of an Engineered Public Confession (if the situation was set up deliberately) or Is This Thing Still On? (broadcasting a private moment by accident) situation.
Compare and contrast the villainous version; the villain has achieved everything he set out to do, has wealth and power beyond his imagination, and is perhaps even ready to settle down with someone they genuinely and unselfishly love. Then they realize that their actions cross a line—believing utterly that what they have done is unforgivable and a HeelFace Turn probably won't even work—and they give it all up to fight for Good anyway. Also see Undercover When Alone.
- Hadestown has a few songs about this, but "Hey Little Songbird" and "When The Chips Are Down" probably fit the trope best.
See, people get mean when the chips are down...
- Referenced in Within Temptation's Utopia, suggesting a less favourable view of humanity;
Why does it rain, rain, rain down on Utopia?
And when the lights die down, telling us who we are.
- The music video plays a straight example in the final chorus; after spending the rest of the video watching tragedies and crimes unfold around him, the point-of-view character stops a child from running into the street after his toy and getting hit by a truck. The child's mother, too distracted by her phone, never notices the peril or the rescue.
- The Pat Green song "In The Middle Of The Night" is a combination of this trope and struggling with alcoholism:
When you finally hit rock bottom,Will you do what's wrong or right?You're gonna find out what you're made of...In the middle of the night.
- "I'm Looking Through You" by The Beatles from Rubber Soul.
You're thinking of me, the same old wayYou were above me, but not todayThe only difference is you're down thereI'm looking through you, and you're nowhere
- "Right Through You" by Alanis Morissette from Jagged Little Pill, directed at a "Mr. Man", about whom she claims: "I see right through you".
- Billy Joel wrote "The Stranger" about this trope, specifically its implications in romance. Do you really know your partner?
- A corrupt official in ancient China once went to a more scrupulous one to talk him into something unethical. "Nobody will ever know!" says the corrupt one. The scrupulous one disagrees: "Heaven knows. Earth knows. You know. I know."
- The entire point of Plato's story about the Ring of Gyges is that no one can pass this test. If equipped with a magical ring that gives invisibility (and thus freedom from consequence), Plato believed that anyone would act purely in his own self-interest.
- A man wants to steal some wheat from his neighbors, so he goes out one night, taking his young daughter with him to keep a lookout. He goes around from field to field, cutting a little here and a little there, and now and then his daughter calls out, "Father, someone sees you!" — but each time when he looks up, they're alone. Finally he asks why she keeps saying that, and she replies, "Someone sees you from above."
- There's a joke about a robber breaking into a house when someone says: "Stop it! I'm warning you: Jesus is watching you!". Turns out it's the family parrot. It introduces itself as Moses, which makes the robber laugh and wonder, "What kind of idiots would name a parrot Moses?" "The same people who call a rottweiler 'Jesus'" answers the parrot.
- The Bible knows human nature well.
- Colossians instructs slaves and employees to do the work they're meant to do at all times, not only when their earthly masters' eye's are on you.
- Jesus expresses the corollary of this in Matthew 6:2.
"So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full."
- Genisis 39:9 Joseph to Potiphar's Wife (who's trying to seduce him): "No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?"
- Nobody knew that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, was a disciple of Jesus. Revealing himself would invite scorn (and possibly worse) from his peers, and the guy he followed had just been crucified. Yet he decided to give Jesus a honorable burial anyways, in his own tomb.
- Another Older Than Print example is this 13th century Middle Dutch rhyme:
Als du wel does so swigher of ("If you do [something] good, don't speak of it.")Dus saltu hebben ghoden lof ("Then you will have God's praise.")
- Of course, one of the main reasons the Bible teaches one to act in such a way is because when you're dealing with omniscient, omnipresent God, you are never in the dark.
- Another Older Than Print example is this 13th century Middle Dutch rhyme:
- In an unusually literal use of this trope, Paranoia has taken to specifically encouraging the GM to have the lights go out at some point during the mission (easily justified due to Alpha Complex's perennial state of disrepair), preferably after the PCs have had time to build up grudges and conflicting goals.
- Wicked: The Wizard gives Elphaba a choice: live comfortably and as a celebrated hero, what she had dreamed of since she was a girl... or work to help the Animals. Cue Defying Gravity, her "I Am Becoming" Song. She gets this twice, and considers it the second time until Dr. Dillamond shows up.
- In William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, there's a scene where Hector kills someone for his armor; it's that kind of play, even Hector is good only when people are watching.
- Les Misérables:
- The song "Who Am I?": Valjean could easily let another man hang in his place, freeing him from worry about Javert forever and no one would ever know. But he'll know, and God will know, so he stops the execution and reveals himself, forcing him to disrupt his now peaceful and productive life to go back on the run from the law.
- When Valjean is given the duty of executing Javert as a spy. He could easily kill the only man who knows him personally enough to track him down — but without even thinking about it this time, he fakes Javert's execution and lets him go free, giving him his address for good measure so the two of them can settle things later. Javert's inability to understand Valjean's morality ends up driving him to suicide.
- In Into the Woods, when the Baker's wife and the Prince have a romantic encounter in the woods, he tells her that "Right and wrong don't matter in the woods. Only feelings." After the deed goes down, she spends the rest of the song wrestling with her conscience before finally rationalizing it.
- In the Mrs Hawking play series: Toward the end of Mrs. Frost, the title character, who's captured Nathaniel and is trying to get him to give her information on Mrs. Hawking, decides to try a new tactic when beatings and imprisonment don't work. She brings out a thick folder full of information— things that Nathaniel fully knows that his aunt will never share, and may not even know —on Colonel Hawking, his personal hero and idol, and tells him that he can "walk out" with all of it if he talks. Even after Mary rescues him and Arthur arrives, Nathaniel has the opportunity to take the folder... and ultimately chooses not to, deciding to make peace with his ignorance rather than betray Mrs. Hawking.
- Cardin bullies Jaune then blackmails him upon finding out Jaune faked his way into Beacon due to having no combat training. When he uses Jaune to target JNPR, Jaune refuses to throw sap onto Pyrrha (which would make her a target for Rapier Wasps) and tosses it at Cardin, despite being outnumbered four-to-one. When an ursa attacks Cardin for the sap, Cardin's friends run away. Instead of running, Jaune jumps in to save Cardin despite his lack of combat training. Although Pyrrha, Ruby and Weiss witness this, Cardin and Jaune had no idea they were there.
- Blake undergoes this in her trailer. She and Adam are attacking a Schnee supply train. Adam orders her to destroy the train. When she points out that will kill the humans on it, Adam doesn't care. Blake turns her back on Adam and decouples the train (saving the humans), abandoning the mission and severing her ties to the White Fang.
- The Reward: Tales of Alethrion ends with the titular character sealing away a demonic version of himself at the cost of his life with no one, including his Love Interest ever learning he was anything but a heartless mercenary Only in It for the Money.
- In The Whiteboard, "Rainman" turns himself in when he gets marked during a tourney, thinking Integrity means doing what's right, even if nobody is looking, even though none of the referees shown to be on the field at the time would have seen him do it.
- In an arc in Fans!, Jesse was revealed to be Jesspin, secretly loyal to the time-traveling conqueror General Maximiliana. But "Jesse" is still his core personality, and while Jesspin is imprisoned by AEGIS, "Jesse" is secretly using Jesspin's mind and body to further Rikk Oberf's plans for the future. When Jesspin tells "Jesse" that no one will know he isn't a traitor, "Jesse" smiles and says, "That's what will make this fun. I do my best work in the dark."
- The Order of the Stick:
- Belkar Bitterleaf sort of has one of these here. He saved Hinjo in the end, but only because he might not be able to kill people later otherwise. This nets him good karma as he soon gets a horde of goblins to murdalize.
- Also, when Vaarsuvius accepts a Deal with the Devil, the devils in question state that there might some alignment-related feedback (in other words, making the character more evil than otherwise would be normal). It turns out that the fiends lied, that the effects of soul-splice on the characters alignment are little more than cheerleaders in terms of alignment-change, and that all of the actions taken were all naturally thought of and committed by the character. They aptly describe it as giving someone a drink and telling them it's alcoholic when it really isn't, and the person behaves drunk because they think it's alcoholic, but they weren't drunk at all in the first place.
- Just to drive the point further, before they even take the deal, the Fiends point out there's a way for V to save their family without owing them a single thing. The only catch is that it involves other people (some of whom Vaarsuvius has just had a massive falling out with) doing all the actual work, and wouldn't even be able to claim credit for the idea. But hey, "We won't tell anyone there was another way to save your children if you don't."
- V's rescue of O-Chul qualifies. Vaarsuvius is heavily injured, nearly out of spells, and completely out of their league, against Xykon, an Epic-level sorcerer and the Big Bad. V turns invisible and means to escape through a hole in the wall, one Feather Fall away from safety... Nobody could possibly know or blame the elf for escaping in that situation, but V instead chooses to go back and help O-Chul instead, rather than abandoning yet another person to their death. It is a very poignant and touching moment an important first step to redemption after everything Vaarsuvius has done.
- Sluggy Freelance: Torg is trapped in the basement with a demon who is ordered to kill him. But the demon is trapped under rubble. Torg could wait until morning, at which point the demon will automatically return home, but when she stops responding to his questions, he pries loose the rubble to save her.
- Susan from Sire delivers quite the speech to Anna after murdering their uncle. They are the same person. If Anna didn't want it to happen than Susan wouldn't have done it.
- In Freefall, the police chief expressed the opinion that behaving well to be a good example to robots might be so habit forming that they will behave well even when no one is looking, in time.
- Rachel from Tower of God is given the opportunity of climbing the Tower as long as she plays part in the conspiracy that requires Baam to die. When they are alone and Baam once again states he wants to be with her, she pushes him off the platform.
- I'm a Marvel... and I'm a DC has Superman go through this in "After Hours". Either he can do nothing to stop Lex, resulting in a world with no major competing comics, or he can stay trapped in a pocket dimension forever. Anybody remotely familiar with Superman knows what he picks. Thankfully, his choice's results...
- In Anachronauts, a genie tempts each of the members of the titular team with just such a temptation, as one might expect.
- Worm. Taylor has the power to control bugs, that's it. Leviathan has just shrugged off many of the strongest parahumans in the setting and is now attacking a shelter full of civilians. Nobody else is around and her tracker is broken. She's heavily injured, already considered a villain and the civilians include a teacher who stood by as her life was made a living hell. What does she do?
- Tragically, though, Taylor feels that the mere fact she considered abandoning the shelter means she isn't really cut out to be a hero.
- In the final episode of Shephard's Mind, Shephard admits to himself that he'll most likely never escape Black Mesa, and nobody would ever know what he did, much less be aware he even existed. But despite that, he's going to take as many aliens down with him as possible.
- In To Boldly Flee, The Nostalgia Critic sacrifices himself to both allow his friend's spirit to be at peace and also to bring stability to the Plot Hole. The only other people who know what he has done are Film Brain, the Angry Video Game Nerd, and the Writer.
- After being held captive by a family who kept feeding him muscle relaxants and making him rewatch his old movies (including one he shot while getting the news that his mother had committed suicide), Donnie DuPre from Demo Reel refuses to hurt them or become like them, and only twitchily mentions his experience in passing to his friends.
- The members of the Knights of Fandom each promise to never use the anonymity of the internet to hurt other people. However, because of said anonymity, there is no way for the organization to actually police its members. The operation relies entirely on the integrity of the individual members.
- Three Worlds Collide has an extreme example of this. In the epilogue, the crew of the Impossible Possible World is nine minutes away from being utterly annihilated by a supernova. Nothing they can do can possibly have any consequences on anything outside that tiny area of time and space. This is heavily lampshaded; half of the chapter is about them coming to grips with that reality.
"Ah," the Master of Fandom said, "so I guess this is when we find out who we really are." He paused for a moment, then shrugged. "I don't seem to be anyone in particular. Oh well."
- In Twig, Sylvester is holding a hostage at gunpoint after having previously determined that he needs to Leave No Witnesses in order to keep Mary safe from reprisal attacks after they've killed the Baron Richmond, but realizes that he doesn't want to kill an innocent, and (with the help of a hallucinatory Jamie) instead goes to considerable lengths to keep his hostages alive, even though it creates complications.