214 – Moral Dilemmas

The Mythcreant Podcast

Sometimes your hero is stuck between two choices, neither of which have a good outcome. Will they allow the villain to escape or shoot said villain in the back? Will they destroy one city to save another? Will they eat less at dinner so they have more room for dessert? Those are all moral dilemmas, which is our topic for this week. Listen as we discuss common problems with moral dilemmas, how to avoid those problems, and what moral dilemmas can add to the story. Plus, why doesn’t Dragon Prince’s Claudia carry a meat cleaver with her at all times?

Download Episode 214 Subscription Feed 

Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Star Trek Discovery

The Truman Show

Infinity War

Dragon Prince

Avatar: The Last Airbender 

The 100

Legend of Korra

Harry Potter



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  1. DvD

    “Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.”—Lord Farquaad, Shrek. 2001

  2. Tifa

    Oh, this is such an interesting topic. I greatly enjoyed listening to it.

    I have noticed the ‘contrived solution’ show up so much, especially in stories that so desperately want to appear ‘deep’ and ‘meaningful’, but fall flat for one reason or another. >.<

  3. Fay Onyx

    I’ll attempt to recreate my lost comment.

    I think that the biggest factor in whether or not an alternative option to a moral dilemma is satisfying is whether that alternative involves a shift to a new moral framework. This new moral framework presents new options for solving the conflict and the old moral dilemma is revealed to have been a false choice. Shifting to a new moral framework resolves the moral conflict by taking it in a new direction that provides a solution. Without this shift to a new moral framework, the third option simply becomes a sidestepping of the moral dilemma that fails to resolve that conflict.

    The earth king’s choice to create a democracy is a great example of this. Through his growth as a character he is able come to the realization that no one person should have all the power (this is the new moral framework) and from that realization he finds a better solution.

    • Fay Onyx

      I did want to add that tricksters can sometimes get away with sidestepping moral dilemmas with trickery. When done well this can take two different directions.

      1) The trickster is operating out of a different moral framework (sometimes this is less obvious) that says that they don’t have to make these sort of choices because there always is an alternative. In these situations they aren’t really sidestepping the moral dilemma, so this continues to be satisfying (assuming their solutions are clever).

      2) The trickster is sidestepping a moral dilemma for a period of time but ultimately comes to a situation where they are forces

      • Fay Onyx

        That second one should read:

        2) The trickster is sidestepping a moral dilemma for a period of time but ultimately comes to a situation where they are forced to make a choice.

        • Bellis

          Thank you, Fay, this is really insightful!

          *takes notes* “shift to a new moral framework!”

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yay, this comment was reconstructed from the ether!

  4. Lucy

    This was an interesting listen, as always – thank you!

    I think writers often just want to have their cake and eat it. Moral dilemmas are interesting and can make for very compelling reading … but they are also, by definition, kinda horrible. Either you have to come up with a third way (and risk it coming across as contrived, as you say), or accept that your story is just going to be a bit of a downer. I think people often fall in love with the ideas, but just can’t bring themselves to go through with it. The, uh, dilemma of writing a moral dilemma? (sorry)

    I was reminded of Doctor Who, which constantly pulls contrived solutions out of nowhere, and Torchwood: Children of Earth, which …. really didn’t. They went through with the whole ‘you’ve got to kill one innocent person to save a whole bunch of other innocent people’ thing, and it was pretty brutal.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah you really have to be sure you know what you’re saying with moral dilemmas, otherwise it just comes off as contrived or depressing. Fay is really onto something with solutions that change the moral paradigm though, wish we’d thought of that on the podcast.

  5. Sarah West

    Great episode!

    I don’t think the end of The Truman Show was setting up a moral dilemma between Truman doing what’s best for the audience/show (staying) versus himself (leaving). I think it was supposed to be a choice between safety and freedom. Staying in the show meant that he’d be protected in a predetermined, but not real, life.

    We discussed this movie in my 9th grade Advanced Studies unit on philosophy (*NNNNNEEEEERRRD!*). The Truman Show is meant to be like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where he’s only experiencing the “shadows” of reality in his safe little world, and he has to make the choice of leaving, even though it’s dangerous. The show’s audience represents all of us viewers making this decision with him as they live through him and route for him.

  6. TheKazz

    I think there are really two key points of making good moral decisions. First is a making all the different options matter and result in a meaningfully different end state and ensuring the net results of those choices have some amount of logical equivalency. And second providing a logical justification as to why one of the limited number of options needs to be made.

    Because you were talking about infinity war I am going to use that as an example on why it fails on both of these key points. The first one you touched on is that there are many times were Thanos gets his way because the heroes are essentially being selfish and saving their friend rather than half of the universe. Clearly in the grand scheme of things one life has no sense of logical equivalency to half of all life.

    The other way in which the moral dilemmas fail in infinity war are all around Thanos and his motivations and the logical conclusion of his actions. He States that he only wants to kill half of all life to save life which is the first issue because it’s quite clear even before the end of infinity war let alone the start of end game that more than half of all life on Earth is killed by the snap. Sure he may have only snapped half but immediately after we see a helicopter crash into a building that had it’s pilot snapped which more than likely killed other people who did not get snapped how many people died in car wrecks has half of all the divers on the freeway got snapped. How many of those who survive are killed because their doctor got snapped or starved because farmers got snapped. How many committed suicide because the people they loved got snapped? So you immediately have this issue of clearly not having half of all life resulting it a net result that is distinct from just all life becoming over populated because they basically both result in this dystopian end state. So you have no sense of equivalency because your choice is between a dystopia in the distant future where people get to be happy until then or you have a dystopia right now caused by force with much suffering. So yeah not really much of a dilemma on which of those is better. The second issue with the motivation of thanos is that he didn’t need to make that choice. He had literally unlimited power to change the entire universe. If he was trying to save the universe from ever running out of resources he could have snapped an infinite amount of those resources into existence he had other options an infinite number of other options to solve the problem he was trying to solve.

    Personally I think they should have kept the comic book motivation of thanos trying to impress the goddess of death instead of trying to make him sympathetic and relatable

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Strongly agree. Changing Thanos’ motivation without changing his actions leads to some serious dissonance in this movie.

  7. Bellis

    For the leader (monarch, general, etc) who has to make a sacrifice but can’t sacrifice their own life because that would be selfish, while sacrificing someone under their power makes it not their sacrifice: I think a possible solution – if done well – would be to make a decision that will save lives now, but cost them their power and possibly life soon.

    A military commander could go against orders to save their troops, civilians or even enemy lives, knowing they’ll face court martial and execution.

    A ruler could do what’s right and put the lives of poor and disenfranchised people over the business interests of the rich and influential, knowing it will result in their loss of power or even an assassination attempt.

    I think for this to be a meaningful sacrifice it would have to be done knowingly and the consequences should come swiftly. If they didn’t anticipate the consequences, it feels more like a tragedy or unjust world or bad luck; which is worthwile to write too, but would be something else. And if the consequences are vague or come much later, it comes off as cheap.

    In order to make it a moral dilemma, the non-sacrificial choice would have to be shown as equally justified. So my examples don’t work super well for that. They could be modified though, for example if the orders the commander ignored were reasonable and the attempt to save lives is super risky and doesn’t work out perfectly, creating a situation that’s not actually better than if they’d followed those orders. Basically, they meant well and did their best, but ultimately it didn’t do more good than harm.

    The ruler could face the choice of doing something nice now but lose power to someone who’ll roll it back, or make compromises that go against their conscience in order to stay in power and be the lesser evil.

    A thing that infuriates me about badly done moral dilemmas is when they don’t adress the point the villain made. Like Thanos pretended to ‘adress’ resource scarcity and climate change, but in the end we’re supposed to cheer for the restoration of the status quo??? Including ongoing climate change? A full team of super rich superpowered geniuses and literal gods with super-tech and time travel and the support of world leaders and masses alike can’t even figure out a possible attempt to tackle this problem, that doesn’t involve sacrificing some people for the greater good??? I don’t buy it. They didn’t even try.

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