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When called to the carpet for their nefarious actions by the heroes, certain villains will pull the Moral Relativism card and ask some form of this Armor-Piercing Question. After all, if they don't subscribe to the same moral compass as the protagonist, and a lot of people in everyday life have come to use "evil" to simply mean "scary" or "what I don't like" who's to say which one of them is really the bad guy?
Very likely to be brought up by someone who is Above Good and Evil (or prides themselves in evil), Constantly Curious, or in some less villainous cases The Philosopher (the field of Ethics). When done well, it is often thought-provoking and adds a level of depth to a work. When done poorly, well, the results are predictable.
For some reason, though, heroes typically don't espouse moral relativism. Maybe this has resulted from aeons of evolutionary pressure on heroes: the ones who stopped to think out the moral conundrums got killed by the Card-Carrying Villain who realized they could use this to Logic Bomb heroes. The traditional hero (The Hero or The Cape (trope)) will claim that evil is evil and the villain is wrong no matter how he tries to justify his actions. The Anti-Hero, on the other hand, doesn't give a damn about ethical dissertations and will just skip straight to the ass-kicking—thus sending the message that sometimes Violence Really Is the Answer.
It's also hard to get heroically-worked-up enough to go and fight said evil villain if you think there's a point of view that justifies his actions.
Frequently combined with Above Good and Evil and (for the illogical) Bad Is Good and Good Is Bad. Generally doesn't come up with Blue and Orange Morality, since What Is Evil? requires the conflicting parties to be on moral planes that are mutually comprehensible (true, false, or otherwise). See also Sliding Scale of Unavoidable Versus Unforgivable, Tautological Templar.
Anime & Manga
- Mazinger Z: In the manga version penned by Gosaku Ota, Baron Ashura kidnaps Kouji Kabuto and suggests him joining him/her. When Kouji states he has no interest in serving a criminal, Ashura gets indignant, and angrily utters "good" and "evil" are nothing but concepts made up by humans, and the only true rules that exist in the world are the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest.
- The series Death Note features a protagonist who eliminates evil... by using a magic notebook that causes anyone whose name is written in it to die. He ultimately wants to turn the world into a crime-free utopia and believes anything he does is justified by his noble goal. The main antagonist is a world-famous detective determined to get to the bottom of a suspicious rash of unexplained deaths, and he realizes it's all the work of a supernaturally prolific serial killer who must be stopped at all costs. The protagonist and antagonist want to kill each other, and both claim to be motivated by a strong sense of justice. Though Word of God says L is actually not motivated by justice at all, but is nonetheless the more heroic of the two, because Kira is hanging out in the deep end of the Knight Templar pool.
- When confronted by the Pharaoh's court in Yu-Gi-Oh and called evil, Thief King Bakura asks if following their rules would automatically make him good. As the court in question sacrificed his entire home village to make the Millennium Items, he has a point.
- The lyrics to the ending theme song to the second half of the R2 arc of Code Geass are basically an exposition on this very question about what evil and justice are. Appropriately enough, the entire series sets out to answer this very question.
An impure world made of demons, then what is justice? Endure before you question, you wicked flower
- When Pein fights Naruto he genuinely believes that his terrorist activities, and killing Naruto, will lead to something at least vaguely resembling world peace. When he get's called out for being evil not only does he give a sob story about how life made him as screwed up as he is he poses a simple question. What's Naruto's plan for peace besides killing him? To which our hero does not have an answer.
- In Saint Seiya, Virgo Shaka invokes this when Ikki asks him why is he fighting for the Pope. He is just serving what he considers justice, and there's more than one justice according to him.
- Elmer C. Albatross of Baccano! is a rare positive example. He's kind and charitable to everyone, since he doesn't see any inherent meaning or morality in the universe.
- The moment in Shakugan no Shana where Shana and the other Flame Hazes discover that they are the villains of the story and not the Snake of the Festival; they all pull a collective Heel Face Turn just as quickly.
- Brick asks Blossom this word-for-word in the fanfiction More Than Human. The actual debate they have, however, is never shown.
- In the Batman: Dark Knight fanfic A Piece Of Glass, the OC Breech Loader repeatedly comments on how sanity is a case of which side of the glass you are on, and on how concepts like Good and Evil are largely redundant thanks to relying on points of view. While The Joker doesn't fully agree with her, he is clearly amused by her reasoning enough not to kill her.
- In chapter three of Drunkard's Walk VIII: Harry Potter and the Man From Otherearth, the original character starts out the first Defense Against the Dark Arts course that he taught to Harry and company with a discussion of what evil is. At the end of what's presented, he offers an example of how an evil person speaks, and, without the OC having met the person in question, "for a moment Harry was sure he was looking at Lucius Malfoy in the hallway outside Dumbledore's office, two years earlier."
Films - Animation
Satan: I can do no wrong, for I do not know what it is.
- Mok in Rock and Rule attempts to allay Zip's concerns about whether it's right to raise a demon during a rock concert with a drug-addled example: "Remember Zip! 'Evil' spelled backwards is 'live'--and we ALL want to do that, don't we?
- In the South Park Movie, Satan sings "What is Evil anyway?/Is there reason to the rhyme?/Without Evil there can be no Good/So it must be good to be evil sometimes..." Of course, on an Evil Scale of 1 to Cartman, Satan in South Park falls somewhere shy of Kyle's mom, Saddam Hussein and... Eric Cartman.
Films — Live-Action
- Star Wars contains some examples (e.g. "From my point of view, it's the Jedi who are evil" relates back to an earlier conversation Anakin had with Palpatine).
Palpatine: Good is a point of view, Anakin. The Jedi and the Sith are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power.
- Anakin uses this argument to justify waltzing into a Jedi school and killing all the children. We had already seen that Anakin was perfectly willing to kill indiscriminately if he believed his opponents were truly evil, even before his fall. Once he believed that the Jedi cared only about power, he could justify doing whatever he wanted in pursuit of that same end. Anakin ends up being a surprisingly well-done example of how this trope can cause not-really-all-that-evil people to jump off the deep end.
- In the 1931 film M, Serial Killer Hans Beckert is pursued by the city's criminal underworld, because the intensive police manhunt is interfering with their business and because they resent police inquiries that imply that they might be associated with a child murderer. When they conduct a mock trial of Beckert, he attacks their sense of moral superiority, declaring that he does what he does because he's haunted by unwanted compulsions he can't resist, while they do what they do because they freely chose crime instead of honest work.
- In Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin plays the title character who is a polygamist and Serial Killer who marries and murders unpleasant wealthy women in order to care for his beloved invalid wife and child. At the end, when he is sentenced to death, he gives a speech about how his actions are no worse than those done by capitalists and soldiers everyday.
- Done by the Protagonist, Ash, in Army of Darkness (after shooting his Evil Twin in the face with his boomstick).
'Evil!Ash: I'm bad Ash... and you're good Ash! You're a goody little two-shoes! Little goody two-shoes! Little goody two-shoes! (punches Ash) Little goody two-shoes! (punch) Little goody two sho--*BOOM!*
- In the director's cut, he's much more direct.
Ash: I ain't that good.
- Inverted in The Patriot when an accusation of ungentlemanly behavior meets the response, "If the actions of your officers are the mark of a gentleman, I will take that as a compliment."
- In Vampire in Brooklyn, Maximillian (Eddie Murphy) impersonates preacher Pauly and makes a surprisingly convincing argument that evil is necessary to appreciate good, to the point that everyone ends up singing "Evil is good, evil is good".
- Harry Lime's 'cuckoo clock' speech in The Third Man.
- In A Clockwork Orange when Alex's uncle speaks to him of right and wrong he says, "Come now, you know that's just a matter of words."
- In Sword of Truth, the villains of the series (The Imperial Order) use this to justify the murder of entire cities full of people. They reason that they are creating the perfect world, and that anybody who disagrees with them has no place in it.
- In Interview with the Vampire, Lestat puts it succinctly: "Evil is just a point of view".
- And the Nietzsche Wannabe viewpoint is summed up by Quirrel's argument to Harry Potter in the first novel, as shown in the quote on the top of this page. In the film adaptation, this speech is instead given by Lord Voldemort himself.
- In Graham Greene's The Third Man, the Affably Evil Harry Lime has sold diluted penicillin on the black market, causing many people to die horribly who had believed they were being treated. He famously justifies these actions on a ferris wheel by pointing to all of the "dots" (people) on the group and argues that if there were a financial incentive for rubbing them out, everyone's actions would ultimately just be quibbling over how many dots they were willing to kill before feeling bad about it. Also, Greene was rather a Writer on Board about putting references to Catholicism in his writings, and so has Lime who is Catholic remark that his actions aren't harming anyone's soul and might even be a good deed by sending them to Heaven faster.
- In Bakker's Second Apocalypse Kellhus claims that ruthlessly using and discarding other people for his personal advantage is all right since the people being manipulated are only slaves to circumstance anyway, so it doesn't really matter if they are his slaves instead.
- Jacen Solo from the Star Wars Expanded Universe was taught by a Jedi named Vergere that there is no "light side" or "dark side" to the Force. This idea spread throughout the Jedi until, several books later, they'd turned into complete jerkasses. Luke finally got around to putting down the idea, though Jacen still followed it. Later, it turned out that Vergere was actually teaching him Sith philosophy, thus robbing Jacen of all his credibility. Some readers appreciated the Retcon, but others preferred the original Vergere, whose teachings got badly mishandled by later authors in the series. She did not merely say, "There is no light side or dark side", she said, paraphrasing, "You can't blame your evil actions on the Dark Side of the Force because there is no Dark Side, nor Light. That doesn't mean there's no such thing as morality — it just means you are responsible for your decisions, and the Force doesn't judge. That's our job."
- And before Vergere, there was Kreia. See Video Games.
- As Lord Vetinari says: "I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people. You're wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides." Unusually for this trope, he's on the same side as the hero. Or at least, Vetinari is more on the side of his city (and the people in it). He isn't really on the same side as the heroes, he just keeps them on the city payroll because they dislike some of the same things he does, and most pertinently because they help keep the city running.
- Vimes said (or thought) something like, "He had heard that good and evil were a matter of perspective, though of course this sort of thing was only said by people in the category traditionally considered 'evil'", in The Fifth Elephant.
- The first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body? has the murderer express a philosophy devoted to this sentiment in a letter he sends to Peter. The character, a Nietzsche Wannabe, views morality as a weakness and hopes for a future in which humans will be cured of guilt and thus in the state he sees as being before the Fall. The letter also somewhat subverts the Motive Rant, since it states quite clearly that ultimately, his only motive was trying to commit the perfect murder.
- Amazingly enough, the fallen preacher Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath is a heroic example. Having discarded his previous, conventional ethical system, he builds a new one, and ideally the reader is to sympathize with him. (For the curious, he keeps all the stuff about not hurting other people, but he now accepts radical farmers' populism and such.)
- From the Humanx Commonwealth universe, in the novel Bloodhype, the Vom is an Eldritch Abomination that travels from planet to planet on the backs of Mind Controlled sentient beings, devouring all life it encounters. During its battle with the Tar-Aiym Guardian and Flinx, it engages in a telepathic conversation with them in which it attempts to rationalize its actions with this exact trope. Their answer: "You're what is traditionally defined as evil, and since we can't reconcile with you, you must die."
- A major theme of Gregory Maguire's Wicked. Near the end of the book, Elphaba attends a dinner party where the guests discuss the meaning of evil, some claiming things like the absence of good, others the moral choice of vice over virtue, or the act of vice over virtue, the suppression of all desires, an attribute like beauty, a presence in the world, feeling guilty after an act, or the lack of guilt after an act, etcetera. Elphaba maintains that it's the nature of evil to be secret.
- Nicodemus in The Dresden Files TRIES to play this card. But, seeing as he treats the Moral Event Horizon as a guideline...yeah. Harry tells him to shove it.
- One episode of Murder, She Wrote uses the "I'm just in it for the money" subversion.
- The Black Guardian in Doctor Who justifies outright lying to Turlough about the Doctor being evil: "Your evil is my good." An earlier story had Sutekh use those exact same words toward the Doctor. Bilis Manger also uses those words in the Torchwood novel "The Twilight Streets". It's a Shout-Out to John Milton's Paradise Lost.
- In Prescription: Murder, the Columbo pilot, Columbo has a drink with the killer, a psychiatrist, in his office and he asks him to come up with a profile for a "theoretical" pre-mediated murderer. The killer explains that this man is probably smart, well educated, even courageous for having the nerve to go through with murder. When Columbo points out that, despite how admirable he may appear in those respects, he is still a murderer and may even be insane, the murderer asks why, just because he committed an immoral act, that makes him insane, and goes on to say that morals are relative and conditioned, and that even if murder was repugnant to the killer, if it was his only solution to his problems then it is just pragmatic to go through with it. Of course, when asked by Columbo how do you catch such a man, he replies, "You don't".
- The Babylon 5 Direct to DVD movie The Lost Tales featured a discussion between a Catholic priest and Colonel Lochley about why God allows evil to exist if he is All Powerful. The priest points out that, God being all powerful and the lord over all creation, it stands to reason that He is neither good nor evil, but rather that both good and evil are tools that He uses in ways beyond the comprehension of mere mortals to guide the Universe.
- Paul and Storm's song Live (done in the style of Jonathan Coulton) is about a lonely Mad Scientist ("The perfect girl / It seems was just too hard to find / So I had to make her ... "). When the mob comes with Torches and Pitchforks, the scientist says:
They call me a monster
- The Brewster aunts in Arsenic and Old Lace might qualify as a humorous example as they sincerely believe they are doing good by killing lonely old men, allowing them a pleasant death comfortably drinking their famous elderberry wine, and ironically view their nephew Mortimer as the black sheep of the family given his Deadpan Snarker attitude (it should also be noted that their other nephew, Jonathan, is a Psycho for Hire).
- The villains of Assassin's Creed, being literal Knight Templar types, do this all the time, calling Altair's motives for taking them down into question. Although it is partially justified, since Altair is an assassin after all, and has a tendency to pull the "What Is Evil" card himself.
- Yggdrassil pulls this on Lloyd during a Hannibal Lecture in Tales of Symphonia, claiming his genocidal and world-shattering shenanigans in the name of eliminating discrimination is just the same as Lloyd choosing Colette's life over Sylvarant's restoration at the end of the Journey of Regeneration. The party's eventual response to this is that at least Lloyd is trying to find a way to Save Both Worlds that doesn't involve intentional loss of innocent life.
- Star Control II
- An optional conversation lets you attempt to force the Always Lawful Evil Ilwrath into admitting that they are, in fact, good. While this does confuse them a bit and irritates them enough to immediately attack you with an inexhaustible force of fighting ships, the argument makes it clear that you're defining "societal deviance" as evil, while they're defining evil as "hurting other people". It's more Rule of Funny than anything else.
PC: But 'evil' is that which is morally bad or wrong. And if your actions are judged by your society as correct, aren't you, in fact, good?
- Pulled by Ur-Quan Kzer-Za (and Kohr-Ah) to certain point. When players first meet Kzer-Za and tells them they are evil, they point out that they are effectively forcing your race from killing themselves, as they have seen in past have prevented Thraddash from doing. Kohr-Ah, on the other hand, point that they don't try to wipe galaxy out of all life because it's fun/evil, but because they feel it's only way they can live.
Kohr-Ah captain: Yes, you are not a enemy. We have no enemies. Today, you are nothing. Just... a spore. A Seed. If allowed to blossom, you might, one day, be threat to our freedom and security. That's why we cleanse.
- At the end of Mega Man Zero 4 the human Dr. Weil claims that a heroic robot like Zero could never kill a human. Unfortunately for Weil, Zero doesn't consider himself a hero. Cue boss music! Hell, at that point Zero barely considers Weil "human". Things were not going to end well for Weil.
- Caulder/Stolos does this in Advance Wars: Days of Ruin when he starts lecturing protagonist Will/Ed about how the nature of society (and his apprenticeship under Brenner/O'Brian) has brainwashed him into conforming to a flawed set of ethics, and what a wonderful thing this ruined world is for allowing people to make up their own minds. Of course, since Caulder/Stolos is the sort of person who could—and probably would — create an experiment to test the effects of orbital reentry on cute kittens For Science!, Will/Ed isn't convinced for a second.
- Testing the effects of orbital reentry on kittens? That's tame for Caulder. He created a friggin' pandemic just to see how humanity would respond (answer: panicking a lot and Dying Like Animals.) Even after Caulder's speech about the "purity" of his motives, it isn't hard to see how Will could honestly claim the moral high ground. Hell, even Waylon would probably think Caulder was nuts.
- Towards the end of the first act of Final Fantasy VIII, as the party prepares to assassinate the sorceress, Irvine comments to Squall about how evil she is. Mulling over the idea, Squall goes into an internal monologue in which he expresses his belief that "good" and "evil" are purely constructs of one's point of view, excuses each side of a conflict uses to justify fighting the opposing side. It's one of the more interesting revelations into his thought process. Although given that Irvine knows that the Sorceress is matron Edea Kramer, his de facto mother-surrogate, whom everyone else seems to have forgotten, he might just be trying to build up some self-justification to psyche himself for the deed.
- Knights of the Old Republic: Kreia is all over this trope. She's rather up-front about how she's manipulating you and everyone else. She Lampshades, openly mocks, and ridicules the morality constructions of both the GFFA and CRPGs. She openly expresses disgust with the very idea of "Light" and "Dark" sides of the Force, and especially the Force itself.
Kreia: What do you wish to hear? That I once believed in the code of the Jedi? That I felt the call of the Sith, that perhaps, once, I held the galaxy by its throat? That for every good work that I did, I brought equal harm upon the galaxy? That perhaps the greatest of the Sith Lords knew of evil, they learned from me?
- In the pure good ending in BioShock 2, Eleanor says to Delta that "You taught me that 'evil' is just a word. Under the skin, it's simple pain." Of course, this is the pure good route, saving everyone including the Alex-in-a-Jar, and Eleanor goes on to save Sophia and lovingly absorb Delta as her 'conscience,' with the Little Sisters by her sides.
- Castlevania: In the following much-immortalized exchange between Dracula and Richter Belmont, the infamous Big Bad points out just how humanity as a whole aren't better than him:
Richter: Die monster! You don't belong in this world!
- The last sentence is better phrased in the PSP Remake:
Dracula: Ha! Mankind. A cesspit of hatred and lies. Fight for them, then, and die for their sins!
- Used bigtime by Kotomine in Fate Stay Night in the final route. Oddly enough, he himself does have the same moral compass as the good guys, despite evil feeling good to him. However, he argues that the Fetus Terrible that will destroy the world when it's born may or may not have the same morals and should be given the chance to explain itself before being judged. After it destroys the world of course. The hero's response can be summed up as "Huh? What are you talking about? I'm just trying to save my girlfriend."
- Stanley the Tool in Erfworld reacts to Parson calling his side "the bad guys" with a tirade in which he declares that the sides in the war are not distinguished as "Good" and "Evil", but rather as "Holy" and "Unholy" (with his side being the "Holy" one, of course).
- Redcloak from The Order of the Stick falls directly into Anti-Villain territory, and several times indicates that he only defines himself as Evil because he opposes those who define themselves as Good. He actually has the view that there are several ways of looking at the battle at hand, but that the side that defines itself most as Good, the Paladins, are the worst ones (not, of course, counting Xykon), not himself. Both sides here have a point: On the one hand the "Good" Paladins did kill almost everyone in Redcloak's village before the story. On the other hand, we are talking about a guy that killed and zombified his brother for the sake of his plan.
- In Digger, a demon who is probably Sweet Grass Voice asks questions like this to Shadowchild when he tries to get Shadochild to devour his/her/it's companions. Shadowchild responds by saying, "She [Digger] said evil did not look like anything, or that it looked like a lot of things... but I think evil looks like YOU!"
- Cwen's Quest, this example:
Demon: Pfff, what is evil? Evil is all subjective! What is evil I ask you?
- Karcharoth of Cry Havoc asks this of Hati, claiming that good and evil are just different view points of the same action.
- In Goblins, Big-Ears the goblin paladin effectively uses Smite Evil on the human actively trying to kill him, which might be a subtle prod at the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system. While it still worked, there is no such thing as "always chaotic evil". Instead, the story is making a point about a group of nonevil goblins fighting a racist lawful evil society.
- The Dreamland Chronicles: Nicodemus:
"Evil? Who is to say what is good and what is evil? Good to one may be considered evil to another."
- Evil Diva: Loki's point of view
- Nip and Tuck: Right and wrong are just a matter of opinion. Tuck takes advantage of it.
Raven: It's dark magic! You've been teaching me dark magic!