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With all due respect, sir, I was not trained to murder the innocent.—Phoebus in The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Things are not going well. Everyone around you gets more cynical and less caring for each day: It Gets Easier. What started out with good, or at least neutral, intentions, ends up more self-serving or antagonistic. The descent has been so slow and so drawn out in time that is has just crept up on everyone.
Then! Someone says "Enough!", usually surprising everyone around them, and makes them remember why they are really there, or what they used to be. This can be in a confrontation with someone in a position of authority, who finally is coming too close to dragging themselves and everyone else over the Moral Event Horizon, but it can be triggered by other factors as well. The Sudden Principled Stand can of course also be done with only two people present, the one giving the order and the one refusing.
The Sudden Principled Stand takes parts of its drama from its suddenness -- it might very well be planned, but its execution comes as a surprise for the people around it, who earlier had been given no hint about it.
One common variation is that the principled stand hinges on a very minor technicality, in which case it is a Reconstruction of a one-off Obstructive Bureaucrat. Can also be combined with a Heel Face Turn, especially if late in the story. Earlier in a story, it can be used as an Establishing Character Moment, to establish a moral center, or establish a later conflict. The variant where the principles invoked are evil is of course possible, but likely uncommon.
- In the Black Orchid miniseries, the second Black Orchid, after one of Lex Luthor's operatives, Sterling, tracks her down to the Brazilian rainforest, refuses his ultimatum to accompany him peacefully to Lexcorp for anatomical study. Sterling orders his two Mooks to kill her with herbicide. However, awed by her beauty and that of the surrounding ecosystem, they refuse ("I--we've killed for you before. It's what we do. But not her. Not here."), and he returns to Metropolis empty-handed. Foreshadowed in that one of the mooks, en route, discusses what he's read about the endangered Amazon rainforests.
- In The Apartment there's Bud's climactic refusal to let Sheldrake use his apartment for a tryst with Fran after her suicide attempt.
- Phoebus against Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as quoted above.
- In Lion King 2 Vitani refuses to attack the Pridelanders even when ordered by Zira, because she was convinced by Kiara's heartwarming speech. In response, Zira threatened that Vitani would die as well. In turn, the rest of Zira's followers refused to attack the Pridelanders.
- In Kung Fu Panda 2, Boss Wolf refuses to fire upon the heroes with his own men in the crossfire. Shen responds by killing him on the spot.
- In the opening of The Shadow of the Lion, Abbot Sachs has, with the help of several Knight Templar, apprehended some children in a church, that he claims are enacting satanic rites. Erik reminds the knights that the kids are most likely innocent, have sanctuary in the church, and can only be removed by order of the parish priest. This sets up Erik as a moral center for the knights, and a conflict with the abbot.
- The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold has several examples:
- In Falling Free, Bannerji doesn't refuse to fire at and destroy the ship that the Quaddies escape on per se, but he demands a proper work order, signed by the Hazardous Waste Management Officer, and with an Environmental Impact Assessment attached. This gives the ship time to escape.
- In Shards of Honor, when Sergeant Bothari refuses to rape Cordelia as per Admiral Vorrutyer's orders.
"She's Commodore Vorkosigan's prisoner. Sir."
- Deryni Checkmate: The day after the Curia excommunicated Morgan and Duncan, its leaders, Archbishops Loris and Corrigan, tried to push through an Interdict on Morgan's duchy as well. The previously neutral Bishop Cardiel spoke against the measure, precipitating a schism within the Church. Cardiel argued that it was unjust to punish the people of Corwyn for the actions of its duke and left open the possibility that Morgan and Duncan were morally innocent. The conflict escalated as other bishops, including Arilan and Tolliver (Corwyn's bishop) joined in, accusing Loris of supporting a rebellion against the king and promoting genocide against the Deryni.
- The entire plot of 1812: The Arkansas War hinges on this trope, in that the United States is forced to address slavery in the 1820s instead of the 1850s, and in a far more direct way. It's not too sudden, but then it involves an entire nation.
- In Torchwood: Miracle Day, Cpl. Coltrane starts off as little more than Colin Maloney's cringing accomplice as he murders Dr. Juarez by demonstrating the true purpose of the modules. In episode 6, however, he shows up just in time to shoot Maloney when he's trying to kill Esther.
Cpl. Coltrane: "This has got to stop!"
- A form of this occurs in "The West Wing." In the 6th season, a conservative Senator is trying to attach a rider banning gay marriage to a budget bill. Toby is looking to rally support, and goes to the Vice President, Bob Russell, for a statement of support. Russell, who is widely regarded as an idiot, mildly corrupt, and a bit of an opportunist, surprises Toby by refusing. Russell states that he has a gay nephew, but is against gay marriage because "it could set back progress fifty years." Bartlet eventually convinces the Senator to drop the amendment on the budget bill.
- Lion-O from ThunderCats (2011) takes one against a blood thirsty mob and his own father.
- Gillecomgain from Gargoyles is a rare villainous example: He had no compunctions about killing Macbeth's father or marrying Macbeth's girlfriend (both on Prince Duncan's orders), but when Duncan ordered him to assassinate Macbeth himself as well, he refused for pragmatic rather than moral reasons: "Nay, milord. Macbeth is an heir to the crown, and much beloved by the people; besides, it might lead to some uncomfortable questions about his father's demise... and who demanded it."