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Elayne: "Galad only does what's right, no matter who he hurts."

Egwene: "Since he only does right, he only hurts evil people, right?"

Elayne: "No, he mostly hurts good people. And that's what makes him so perfect."

Egwene: "Wow. I wish I could be so perfect."

Sometimes, it hurts to do the right thing. Sometimes, it's damned if you do and damned if you don't. And sometimes, what seemed a good idea at the time turns out otherwise. It sounded like the right thing... but it turned out to be Not Quite the Right Thing.

Whenever a device like this is used in a plotline, it's sometimes used to provide some sort of moral ambiguity to the situation (in which case, there truly wasn't a right thing). Usually leads to a Downer Ending or a Nice Job Breaking It, Hero, and is a major part of shows with Black and Gray Morality. It can get messy when mixed with a good/evil Karma Meter.

Unfortunately, all too often Truth in Television.

When everyone involved is aware that all options are bad and that there's no right answer, it's a Sadistic Choice instead.

Examples of Not Quite the Right Thing include:


Anime and Manga

  • Soukou no Strain: Sara can't bring herself to kill her brother, despite witnessing the massacre at Grabera. Because of this, he kills yet another person that Sara has allowed herself to care about. Although he is still the most important person in her life, she decides to stop him from hurting anyone else.
  • The anime series Monster begins with this trope: a doctor disobeys hospital director's orders and saves the life of a child whose foster parents had been killed, only to discover ten years later that he had murdered them, and committed a string of other murders since then as well. Not to mention that said child decided to "thank" him by killing the director and the entire board that demoted him. And then to be even more of a Poisonous Friend, Tenma himself ends up getting the blame for these murders, and turns fugitive years later when the boy returns and kills one of his patients, who was an accomplice in the boy's serial mass murder of entire families. Tenma gets blamed for that too.
  • Happens a lot in Code Geass, due to its Grey and Grey Morality.

Film

  • John Carter bravely saves the wounded Colonel Powell from a probable quick death at the hands of the Apache and thereby (unintentionally) condemns him to die a lingering and lonely death from exposure and blood loss in a cave. Even worse if you consider the battle with the Apache took place out in the open probably close to the cavalry camp meaning rescue - though unlikely - might have been possible if Carter had left Powell for dead.
  • The ending of the movie Gone Baby Gone totally qualifies with Patrick's final choice. He takes the little girl back to her mother, who is horribly neglectful, and away from the police who had kidnapped her for her own good and killed several people to cover it up. Patrick ends up losing his fiancee as a result, and the ending of the book sees the girl back with her mother in the same situation. It's generally agreed that he was damned if he did, damned if he didn't.
  • The Butterfly Effect combines this with It Got Worse. Every. Single. Time.
  • In the film For One Night a young student tries to stop segregated proms at her school. Well it might have been the right thing to do, but nevertheless racial tensions exploded in her town. Although to be fair the reporter Desiree Howard kinda added fuel to the fire by breaking the story.
  • The ending to the Richard Gere / Edward Norton film Primal Fear, where it is revealed that Edward Norton's character really is a murderous sociopath, after Gere succeeds in defending him at his murder trial.

Literature

  • This happens repeatedly when Bastian recklessly makes wishes using the AURYN in the original novel of The Neverending Story. Perhaps the best example is when he finds a race of beings so utterly ugly that they constantly weep. He wishes for them to become beautiful and always laugh, but it turns out that their tears are actually necessary.
  • Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series puts the Jews in this position. After Warsaw is freed by the Race, the Jews cooperate with them in order to survive, and are seen as traitors to humanity by doing so. The fact that attempts to condemn the Race for their actions such as destroying Washington D.C. are altered and turned into praises don't help.
  • The Valar were motivated to things like bringing the Elves to the Undying Lands or rewarding the Edain with Numenor entirely by good intentions. The text still takes the time to strongly imply that doing so was ultimately the wrong thing to do.
    • In Tolkien's legendarium, trying to impose any vision or much of anything else on the world is likely to end badly, because the free wills and free choices of Elves and Men are so vital, and because no finite entity comprehends enough of How Things Work in the universe to be able to predict the consequences of their actions outside their purview. Tolkien had a low opinion both of reactionaries ('Embalmers') and progressives ('Reformers'), Sauron started out as a Reformer, the Elves of Eregion who made the Rings were Embalmers. Both were Not Quite the Right Thing.
  • Harry Potter - The same night that Professor Trelawney delivers a genuine prophecy about a servant of Voldemort returning to his master, Harry persuades Remus and Sirius to send Wormtail to prison instead of killing him, only for him to escape. Harry is horrified at the idea that he might have helped Voldemort on his way back to power, but Dumbledore consoles him that he only did the best he could at the time. He also notes that Wormtail owes Harry his life, which may come in useful in the future.
    • Sure enough, it finally pays off in Deathly Hallows: when Wormtail tries to strangle Harry, the latter reminds him that he owes Harry his life. This causes Wormtail to hesitate...and his magical hand to strangle Wormtail instead.
  • Given that A Song of Ice and Fire is Black and Gray Morality verging on Black and Black Morality at times, it's unsurprising that this happens a lot. The most tragic example is probably Robb Stark's downfall; he has been an unstoppable military threat in the War of Five Kings, and the Lannisters are at their wits end trying to figure out any way to take him on in the battlefield, but then he is "comforted" by a young noble girl while recovering from a wound after one of his conquests. Robb is immediately caught in a dilemma between "doing the right thing" and marrying the girl whose virginity he just took, (especially considering it's a medieval style world, where without her virginity a girl will, at best, have much lower prospects for marriage and be judged her whole life, or be tremendously shamed and shipped out to a nunnery at worst) or "doing the right thing" and honoring his betrothal to a Frey girl. Robb decides his personal honor takes priority over his vow as a king and marries the girl, which results in the Freys betraying him, murdering him and most of his followers, and desecrating his corpse.

Live Action TV

  • CSI: Parents euthanize their child upon seeing symptoms of a painful degenerative disease to which they had already lost another child. Turns out that the child was healthy, the symptoms were caused by something else.
    • CSI in general (all three shows) has a strong thread of ironic justice running through it. ANY time a character - ANY character - either breaks the law to bring someone else to justice (say, by planting evidence or searching without a warrant), or kills someone because the law can't punish them for their crimes, it will ALWAYS backfire. Anyone killed out of a sense of "justice" will ALWAYS turn out to have been innocent the entire time, and the killer will always wind up devastated over what they've done. Criminals framed for a crime or illegally arrested will always turn out to be innocent as well, potentially resulting in the person doing the frame losing everything in the process. Crime absolutely does not pay - regardless of the reasons - in the CSIverse.
      • Actually it was subverted in one episode where the father of a missing girl planted an already-dead body he stole inside the chimney of the man he suspected killed said daughter. His plan succeeded spectacularly as his dead daughter's body was hidden in a brick extension to the chimney in question. Considering the judge limited the warrant to the chimney at one point the man not only made his own luck but hit the jackpot with it.
  • Babylon 5: Dr. Franklin performs a life-saving surgery on an alien child, over the objections of his parents that his chest cavity not be cut open or his soul will escape. When they find out, their religion requires them to kill him.
    • Dr. Franklin also forces a traumatized war veteran to confront the fact that he's not King Arthur. Re-traumatizing him catatonic. The good doctor then Lampshades that this keeps happening to him, because of his need to fix everything.
  • This happens in the episode of House where he is institutionalized; House chews out the doctor who forced a delusional patient to confront the fact that he was not actually a super hero (then went catatonic). House ends up trying to "help" the guy and only makes things worse. But he eventually learns a lesson about the difference between trying to "fix" things and actually just apologizing.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series, "The City on the Edge of Forever": Saving Edith Keeler's life seems like the right thing to do, but if she lives she will found an influential peace movement, which also seems like the right thing to do but will delay America's entry into World War II and hand victory to the Nazis.
    • One of the best if not the best TOS episodes, combining the grey areas of real world moral choice with a harsh lesson in the nasty implications of time travel, and also an implicit rebuke to the idea that love conquers all. Kirk was very much in love with Edith, she was not just a pretty skirt he was chasing... but that didn't matter. What was necessary was necessary. Spock's emotionless act is transparently undercut by the genuine sympathy and pity in his simple, dry statement to McCoy, "He knows, Doctor. He knows."
  • The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica does this ALL the time. From Colonial One's abandoning of the civilian ships in the miniseries to the Olympic Carrier to mutiny to military dictatorships to banning abortion to baby-stealing to torture to assassination to suicide-bombing to election-rigging - the characters (mainly Commander/Admiral Adama and President Roslin) constantly wrestle with the decision to do the easy thing or the right thing. And they actually make crappy decisions a good deal of the time.
    • Abandoning the ships in miniseries turns out to be tragically right, though. And it's not like they had any choice (those ships didn't have any FTL engines, and would never have been able to escape the Cylons anyway).
  • In Lost season 3, Kate refuses to leave Jack with the Others, so she grabs Sayid, Locke, and Rousseau, and treks across the island to rescue him. She doesn't know that Jack's scheduled to leave the island by submarine the next day, or that Locke's true intention is to blow the submarine up.
  • Cold Case loves this. Why choose between a Sympathetic Murderer or a Sympathetic Victim when you can have both and make the era the monster?
  • Doctor Who: In Genesis of the Daleks, The Doctor is tasked with destroying or altering the behavior of the Daleks so as to make them a negligible threat. The Doctor, however, realizes that by doing so, he would rob the different races of the universe of a chance to end warring amongst themselves, as countless civilizations put aside their differences to band together in grand coalitions against the Daleks, learning to work together in harmony along the way.
  • In the Farscape episode "...Different Destinations", our heroes get sent back in time and keep trying to Set Right What Once Went Wrong. Finally, it looks like they've succeeded and you're all set up for the little girl to survive the intervening years...only to find that while they do get back to their own time and fix the timeline, the nurses are slaughtered.
  • This is commented on in an episode of Stargate SG-1, where Daniel recounts the many instances where the team made seemingly good choices which turned out to have completely unforseeable evil consequences. Oma Desala comments that the universe is an infinitely complicated place full of unforseeable consequences which an individual can't control, but they can control whether they themselves are good or evil.

Tabletop Games

  • Shows up a few places in Exalted. The Usurpation, several actions of the Scarlet Empress, and even occasionally the Primordial War had results that were kind of good in the long run but the methods to achieve them and their (undecided) ultimate consequences are still a bit... iffy.

Video Games

  • An irritating example occurs at the end of Akiha's route in the Tsukihime Visual Novel. Akiha has finally succumbed to her demon blood and become a mindless killer. She made you promise to kill her when this happened. Breaking your promise and letting her live nets you a very depressing ending where Akiha lives out the rest of her life as a mindless doll in a shed that has to suck your blood until you nearly collapse every day. This is her normal end. Keeping your promise and putting her out of her misery nets you a Bad End despite being much less miserable. (To get the best ending, you have to Take a Third Option, but that's beside the point.)
  • Fate/stay night, during the Heaven's Feel route, the protagonist faces the choice of killing Sakura, an innocent abuse victim who he loves, or sparing her and risking her killing innocent people entirely unintentionally. The former choice has Shirou emulating his foster father Kiritsugu and killing his emotions to do what's "right"...and severely disappointing Ilya (who was previously abandoned by Kiritsugu, her father) and Rin (who is then forced to kill her sister), with the implication being that he will eventually kill them too. Even the Tiger Dojo inhabitants are speechless. And the one person with congratulations happens to take pleasure in the suffering of others... The latter choice also cannot be considered the 'right' thing because while you spare an innocent, it results in Sakura being saved, but only after unconsciously devouring many people and putting the world in danger.
  • Used quite frustratingly in Yggdra Union, where there are three examples of the trope.
    • Starting at the end of Chapter 7, when the Royal Army begins its invasion of Bronquia, they devastate the country and destroy several innocent towns but don't stop because Yggdra is afraid that Gulcasa will just invade Fantasinia again. The venture winds up not just utterly destroying Bronquia's capital and killing everyone in the Imperial Army, but costing the life of Milanor's best friend and love interest, Kylier.
    • Then in Chapter 9, when Nessiah is reintroduced, Yggdra and Milanor automatically vilify him and refuse to listen to his side of the story, even before he starts trotting out People Puppets. While his plans do endanger the world and he's come dangerously close to crossing the Moral Event Horizon, he's also got very good reasons for what he's doing.
    • And finally, the player's choices mean that there is no real good ending. If Yggdra gives up the Gran Centurio and decides to reign in peace, the real villain is allowed to continue his plans unchecked and the system that abused and broke Nessiah is allowed to flourish, but if she follows in Nessiah's footsteps and chooses to Rage Against the Heavens, she winds up endangering her own world and the cycle of pain and sacrifice just goes on for much longer. There is no happy ending for Nessiah, who the Royal Army looks at as a villain either way, and everyone who died still died (in some cases pretty needlessly).
  • Devil Survivor has a few examples. For instance, on Day 5, you can talk Keisuke down from his Knight Templar vengence spree without a fight. However, doing so upsets idealistic Midori, and she leaves your team... and goes straight to Kaido, telling him who and where the 'four-eyed freak' who killed his followers is, forcing you to fight both of them and break their COMPs.
    • Well ultimately it's a Dual Boss in place of a Plotline Death. Not exactly a bad deal.
    • Day 5 can be pretty evil about this. If you found Mari's bag the previous night, one of the first things your party recommends that you do this day is give it back to her, so that she has the Achilles Heel necessary to defeat Kudlak. Did you do that? Well, congratulations - you've basically doomed Keisuke to die horribly at Kaido's hands, and your only chance to save him at this point is at the exact time Mari is scheduled to die. The proper solution to all this is to give Mari's bag to Kaido, which, by making him go to help Mari, distracts him from hunting down Keisuke... and to do that, you need to have seen one or two specific conversations on an earlier day. Dammit, Atlus!
  • The Sadistic Choice at the end of Meria's route in Knights in The Nightmare. Either you betray Meria, side with Marietta, and kill your most loyal ally for the sake of an otherwise "happy" end, or you refuse to abandon her, and she hits the entire universe's Reset Button by destroying it. There is no other option but fighting Marietta and losing, which is much worse.
  • In Dragon Age, two sidequests in Orzammar have this effect.
    • First is the quest where you help the dwarven Genki Girl scholar Dagna be allowed to move into the Circle to study (Dwarves are incapable of magic). While this seems like a good thing, according to the epilogue, Dagna's research deeply explores how lyrium contributes to magic, giving the Circle an excuse to set up a semi-independent group in Orzammar. However, the Chantry becomes enraged at the prospect of Orzammar harboring mages not under their control, seriously straining the relations between the Chantry and Orzammar. The negative effects can only be avoided by mage warden under the right circumstances.
    • The second, and probably much more severe quest, is where you help a dwarf establish a Chantry presence in Orzammar. If you do this, the epilogue reveals that resentment of the Chantry's presence eventually sparks mass riots throughout the city. The leader of the Orzammar Chantry, who happens to be the dwarf you helped, is killed in these riots, further straining relations with the Chantry to the point that they are seriously considering launching an Exalted March (ie holy war) against Orzammar.
    • Yet a third comes from the main questline in the city itself. In order to get any support from the city, you need to ensure that one of two candidates for kingship takes the throne. One candidate is Lord Harrowmont, a fairly good natured man who is said to have been chosen by the former king himself as the successor. The other is Prince Bhelen, the remaining son of the former king, correctly suspected of killing his older brother and framing his other sibling (possibly main character) among other shady schemes for the throne. Choosing Harrowmont results in Orzammar closing itself off from the surface world and strengthening the already oppressive caste system. Choosing Bhelen results in Orzammar becoming a benevolent dictatorship, opening up to others, taking back some lost land, and eventually abolishing the caste system. Yeah, this game loves it some Grey and Gray Morality. Then again, the game does show that Bhelen is supportive of the Casteless while Harrowmont is a traditionalist to the point of stagnation.
    • Unsurprisingly, Dragon Age II likes this trope as well.
      • Want to help Anders deal with his possession problem? Congratulations, you just helped him set up a Fantastic Nuke that killed thousands of innocent people and sparked an all-out conflict between the Templars and Mages.
      • Consistently picking the "diplomatic" options on the dialogue wheel during Merrill's final companion quest ends up forcing you to kill her entire clan after they attack you.
      • You might start to regret your decision to side with the mages when the First Enchanter starts using Blood Magic.
      • A misguided apostate whose life you can choose to spare will end up swearing revenge, turning to Blood Magic, and kidnapping your (friend or relative, depending), even if you side with the mages.
        • In three out of four of those cases it makes no damned difference what you choose, it'll happen anyway. The disaster with Merrill's clan is the only one that can be avoided, and is probably the biggest surprise of your "good" choices going wrong.
  • Mass Effect 2: During Samara's recruitment mission, you come across an Eclipse merc willing to surrender and who is practically begging for her life. You can let her live, despite her going for a gun, but you'll find an audio log that reveals that she was the one who murdered the Volus merchant, and that she took sadistic pleasure in it as well. But it's Ultimately Averted: If you listen to the news afterwords (the same news that talks about Blasto), they say that she was arrested.
  • Fallout 3 has the infamous Tenpenny Towers quest, where the guards won't allow Roy Philips, a sentient ghoul, to buy himself an apartment or even let him in. Fighting the Fantastic Racism would be the right thing to do for anyone except Roy, because he's a murdering bastard who has no intentions of living peacefully with his new neighbors. With a proper FAQ, the player can subvert this trope by assassinating Roy right after getting the existing residents to agree to let the ghouls in.
  • Fallout: New Vegas also has a number of unexpected negative consequences result from seemingly good acts, although nothing as extreme as the Tenpenny Tower example from Fallout 3. Convincing Arcade to fight alongside the Remnants against Caesar in the NCR and Legion endings results in him being branded a war criminal and hunted down due to his revealing his Enclave affiliation, and going for the Independence ending results in the Followers of the Apocalypse being flooded beyond capacity by new patients due to the massive increase in mayhem and dismemberment caused by the resulting power vacuum.
    • Honest Hearts features one of these in both outcomes of the final choice. Helping Daniel evacuate the Sorrows saves more people from dying, but Zion -- one of the last fertile and non-nuked areas in the world -- is destroyed by the now-unopposed White Legs. Meanwhile, helping Graham exterminate the White Legs saves Zion, but the Sorrows end up breaking their wow of nonviolence that leads to later conflicts with their former allies the Dead Horses.
  • In Knights of the Old Republic one mission sees a you tasked with defending in court a renounced republic war hero accused of murdering an agent of the sith forces on a neutral planet. The Sith have clearly tampered with evidence to incriminate him making your job easy enough. Trouble is you can track down evidence proving that he is actually guilty and killed her out of passion when he found out she was only romantically involved with him to spy for the enemy. The correct (i.e. Light side) choice is to point out that the Sith altered the evidence, but that he's guilty anyway.
  • In Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark, you'll come across a woman who has built a shrine and is caring for a sleeping celestial searching for his one true love. Later on in the game, you can discover that she is the woman the celestial has been searching for the entire time. Not playing your cards exactly right results in her rejecting her destined lover since she feels she is unworthy of his feelings and dooming the celestial to an eternity of searching for her in vain. Do it right, however, and they stay together.
  • Army of Two: The 40th Day subverts/deconstructs/parodies video game morality choices with heavy use of this trope. There are a number of points in the game in which the heroes are given a choice of two actions; one obviously "good" and one obviously "bad". The "bad" morality choices usually turn out exactly as you would expected. The subversion/deconstruction comes in the fact that the "good" morality choice almost always has a completely unforseeable, incredibly negative consequence in the future, often as bad or even worse than what would have if you made the "bad" choice, which the heroes never even become aware of and which is only revealed to the player by the narrator.
    • As an example, the first morality choice you get in the game is to kill another mercenary who's been helping you, or to pretend to kill him and tell him to disappear. If you kill him, he dies. If you let him live, he escapes Shanghai before all the shit goes down, and moves to a quit tropical island...where he's killed by an assassin while sleeping on a beach lounger.
  • In the first half of Time Hollow, this happens to Ethan a lot. His first try at fixing each past incident usually makes things worse, and he has to try something else. He has even more trouble in the second half of the game, but this time it's because the bad guy is actively undercutting him.
  • Two examples from Alpha Protocol:
    • In Rome, you will be given the Sadistic Choice of saving your friend or defusing bombs that threaten to kill dozens, if not hundreds, of people. If you choose to save the Distressed Damsel, the bombs go off. If you defuse the bombs, she is shot dead in front of you. From a purely utilitarian perspective, defusing the bombs is obviously the right thing to do, since many more people will die if they go off. However, the epilogue reveals that, if you let the hostage die, she becomes a symbol for the movement to enact harsh new anti-terrorism laws (which was the villain's goal all along), while, if she lives, she becomes a charismatic and effective leader in the movement against them.
    • In Taiwan, your choice is to save the President from being assassinated or prevent a violent riot. Saving the President is intended to preserve the stability of the region, but it actually leads to Taiwan and China edging even closer to war, since he uses his increased popularity with the public to get more aggressive in his foreign policy. If you let him die, his successor will be much more moderate and will work to ease tensions.

Web Original

  • This flash video about driving is all about this trope. Every time the person does the "right" action, it only brings further trouble or inconvenience.

Western Animation

  • The Weekenders, "Band": Carver Descartes tells his favorite band that he is not a songwriter, simply because he thinks that lying about the band dedicating their local show to them was enough lies. Turns out that because of that, Chumbucket doesn't have to pay royalties for a song they wrote from doodles Carver left on a napkin. Carver is seething.

 Carver: (clenches teeth)

Tino: You Did the Right Thing.

Carver: Still... (clenches teeth again)

  • Futurama, "Jurassic Bark": Fry thinks it's tampering in God's domain to resurrect his dog, and he probably had a long fulfilling life anyway. Long? Yes. Fulfilling? No -- he never got over Fry's disappearance, and spent the rest of his life waiting in front of Fry's old workplace. We call that a Downer Ending.
    • This was later retconned thanks to time-travel. Fry went back in time and lived 12 more years of his life in the 21st century, before returning to the future as an older guy and meeting his younger self. This was probably done because the original ending crushed souls with its sadness.
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