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...outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

Sometimes, there is no easy choice to make. No matter what you do, something is going to go badly for someone. The choice of who to save and who to let die often falls on The Hero, and when it does, there's only one choice to make. Whether he has to save the world, the country, or the city, he almost always has to let go of his best friend or Love Interest in the process. However, this trope is averted nearly as often as it's played straight, especially among Anti Heroes who are willing to screw over the whole world for the ones they love.

Of course, it isn't always The Hero who has to make the decision. Monarchs or generals may be forced to sacrifice large numbers of troops or citizens For the Greater Good (former trope name). Well Intentioned Extremists and Knight Templars often use this as a justification for their actions; they're more than willing to kill dozens if they think it will save thousands.

Keep in mind, "many" and "few" are relative. The most important part is just that someone has to be sacrificed to save significantly more. And although it is an old concept, the phrase itself is much Newer Than They Think, the Trope Namer being The Wrath of Khan.

Compare Heroic Sacrifice and Sadistic Choice. If the protagonist is being asked to sacrifice themselves, this is likely to be What Is One Man's Life in Comparison?. For the more morally gray versions, compare Utopia Justifies the Means and A Million Is a Statistic. Sometimes, The Hero may be able to Take a Third Option. See also "Friend or Idol?" Decision. A catchphrase of every other Hive Mind.

Examples of The Needs of the Many include:


Anime and Manga

  • Sailor Moon's refusal to do this in the S series is what enraged Uranus and Neptune near the end, as Sailor Moon couldn't stand sacrificing Hotaru to save the world (she didn't have to, but the conflict of one person vs. the world was brought up at least somewhat).
  • In Gurren Lagann using this trope as a mantra is why Simon is happy with the series ending despite the heart-rendingly painful price he had to pay to save the universe. It perfectly shows how strong and heroic Simon has become. It's also extremely Japanese.
  • Shirou Emiya's father, Kiritsugu, possessed this principle and we get to see it in action in the prequel, Fate/Zero. The contradiction in this ideal is also exposed by the corrupted Grail when he gets shown an illusion where he has to save either the many or the few until he has killed 498 people for his two most beloved people.


Comic Books

  • In Watchmen, Veidt's final plan is to kill millions of people in order to trick everyone else into world peace.
  • The League of Shadows, led by Ra's Al Ghul, has been around for centuries wiping out any civilizations that they think have become too corrupt, in order to stop them from spreading their corruption to the rest of the world.
  • Parodied in Runaways, where a villain is trying to justify an attempt to exterminate the entire human race "for the greater good," and quotes the Star Trek example as "proof." The heroine is not impressed and says "You're Insane!."


Film

 Ishmael: Aft bulkhead open. Pump valves jammed!

Nemo: Seal it off!

Ishmael: There are men in there!

Nemo: For the greater good, we must seal it!

  • The antagonist in Two Thousand Twelve does this. It turns into Straw Man Has a Point, considering that he believes some (or many) people can be sacrificed to save the human race.
  • The Matrix sequel has Neo forced to make the choice of returning to The Source, and allowing the Matrix to be re-booted, saving the lives of everyone still jacked in, or leave and save Trinity from the Agent she's fighting while letting the Matrix crash, killing pretty much all that's left of humanity. He decides to Take a Third Option.
  • The Polish short film Most (which means "Bridge"), in which a man ends up sacrificing his son by lowering a drawbridge to prevent a train crash.
  • Averted in Johnny Mnemonic. The data in Johnny's head has the potential to save millions of lives at the potential expense of his own (and will kill him--as well as wind up lost forever--if he doesn't remove it from his head, anyway), but he initially refuses every attempt to retrieve the data because of the very chance that it might kill him or leave him with significant brain damage.
  • Spoken word for word by Sentinel Prime in Transformers: The Dark of the Moon. This time, though, it's in a much more sinister context. Essentially, Sentinel uses this as justification for enslaving mankind to rebuild Cybertron (by "the many" he means all Cybertronians; he couldn't care less about humanity). Doubles also as an Actor Allusion, as Sentinel is voiced by Leonard Nimoy.


Literature

  • The Dresden Files gives us at least two subversions where the main protagonist refuses to put the many ahead of the few. First in Grave Peril Harry rescues Susan from Red Court vampires, even knowing that his actions will trigger major repercussions from the Red Court. He does it again in Changes when his daughter is kidnapped by the Red Court during a cease-fire. This time around someone directly asks him to consider the needs of the many, but Harry makes it clear he'll let the entire world burn before letting the vamps hurt his daughter.
  • From The Bible, John 11:49-50: "And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not."
  • In the third Pendragon novel, Bobby has to choose between letting the Hindenburg burn, killing a few dozen people, or saving it and letting Germany win WWII. He almost makes the wrong choice, sending him into a temporary Heroic BSOD.
  • In Crown of Slaves Berry Zilwicki risks her life to save the occupants of a captured slave ship, reasoning that one life against several thousand is "no contest, the way I see things."


Live Action TV

  • Another example from the Star Trek: The Original Series episode The City On The Edge of Forever." In it, Kirk had to let Edith Keeler die to save his own timeline, because her peace efforts would have prevented the US from entering what would be World War II when they needed, and cause Hitler and Nazism to conquer the world by developing the atomic bomb first. To save all those of their future, Kirk must stop Dr. McCoy from saving Edith from getting killed in a car accident. Kirk can't speak when Bones exclaims: "Jim! I could have saved her...do you know what you just did." Spock can only reply: "He knows, Doctor. Soon you will too. For what once was...now IS again." In James Blish's transcript in "The Star Trek Reader" Spock also comes across as trying to help Kirk rectify this. "No, you acted. Because no woman was ever loved so much, Jim. Because no woman was ever offered the universe for love."
    • A rather nasty version in "In The Pale Moonlight", when Sisko enlists Garak in coming up with a scheme to draw the Romulans into the Dominion War on the side of the Federation. Garak succeeds, but has to assassinate a Romulan official in the process, along with the criminal who forged the recording they are using to fool the Romulans into thinking the Dominion was planning to attack them. When Sisko confronts him over this, Garak points out that they might have just secured a Federation victory in the war -- "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."
  • Once on Angel when the gang was on Pylea and making battle plans to free the downtrodden humans.

 Gunn: Those men you sent to create a diversion are going to get killed.

Wesley: Yes, they are. (Beat) You try not to get anybody killed, you wind up getting everybody killed.

 Delenn: We had to choose between the deaths of millions and the deaths of billions.


Theatre

  • In the musical "Starship by Starkids, this is a major philosophy on the Bug homeworld. Bug also sacrifices his human body in the end to save the rest of the Starship rangers, finally understanding what it means.


Tabletop Games

  • Warhammer 40000: This trope is played straight by various factions...
    • Imperium of Man: Sacrifice plenty of Imperial Guard to win back a planet or successfully defending one. In some cases sacrifice the planet for the millions of other planets...ok lets just say sacrifice a few billion for even more trillions.
    • Eldar: They flip this trope, sacrifice the billions of non-eldar for the few eldar.
    • Tyranids: Subvert this by a longshot, lose billions but in the end they win and eat the planet dead and all. And those they lose? They just eat their corpses and recycle the biomass.


Video Games

  • Mass Effect 2's Arrival DLC has Commander Shepard ram an asteroid into a Mass Relay. The resultant explosion wipes out the entire system it's in, obliterating 305,000 colonists and Shepard will be put on trial for his/her actions. Justification? It delays a Reaper invasion, which would have wiped out all sentient life in the entire galaxy.
  • In In Famous Cole is faced with the sadists choice of saving the one or the many; his girlfriend Trish or half a dozen doctors who could save many lives themselves. It's a Karma-Moment, so the player gets to decide and is rewarded good or evil karma for a selfless or selfish decision respectively.
  • In Alpha Protocol, choosing to save either Madison St. James or a whole room full of innocent people, and the choice between saving Ronald Sung by giving him the assassination plans or saving hundreds of people by foiling a plot to incite nation-wide riots.
  • A major theme of Dragon Age; it shows up in the Redcliffe and Circle quests, the whole concept of the Grey Wardens, and the endgame.
  • A recurring theme in Battlefield 3. In one level the player plays a member of a Russian special forces team trying to prevent a nuclear attack in Paris. The team at the beginning discuss that they may come into a firefight with French police, but that it's far more important to stop the nuclear attack than worry about the fate of a few police. Later playing as an American forces they come under fire by Russian military who are basically after the same thing but fight back due to no other choice, the player character later says he held nothing against the Russians and doesn't consider them his enemy despite them killing much of his squad. Near the end of the game it comes in full force when the player character guns down his commanding officer to allow a Russian special forces soldier to escape as the only hope of preventing a nuclear attack.


Visual Novels

  • This is a recurring theme in Fate/stay night, where the Arc Words appears to be "a hero must choose the people he saves". The only time it has a direct impact on the plot is during the "Heaven's Feel" scenario, when Shirou is given a choice between killing Sakura, the girl he loves (and who has been horribly abused) and allowing her to live and potentially endanger an unknown number of innocent people, although to his knowledge she has not yet harmed anyone and is not certain to do so, or to be unstoppable at a later date if she did go insane. Playing the trope straight leads to a Bad End due to Shirou following his father's path and killing everyone he cares for (with the implication being that he will spend the rest of his life alone and unhappy, going around the world killing innocents like Sakura who are a potential threat to others), whilst attempting to Take a Third Option and save everyone (whilst ultimately unsuccessful and resulting in the deaths of hundreds of innocents) allows him to earn himself a happy ending with the girl he loves.


Western Animation

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