Stories about good and evil are classic, but black and white morality can rob a story of complexity and nuance. That’s why a couple of years ago, I provided some alternatives. Since one article can’t cover every source of gray conflict, I’m back at it. Look over these dualities the next time you need a moral dilemma.
1. Resistance vs Adaptation
We want to believe we shape our own destiny, but reality can make that a lie. The ground could move beneath us, or vengeful foes could descend from above. We might forestall these tidal waves by devoting all we have to the task. But what if we try, and fate still sweeps us aside? If we focus on resisting, we can’t make the best of what we have. By accepting the indignity of our new circumstances, we allow ourselves to adapt.
ExampleNo one was prepared when the skies were torn asunder. Beings from distant stars had mandated that humanity would join the intergalactic community. Their demand seemed simple: trade. But as the markets flood with cheap alien goods and services, human businesses fail one by one. To keep their bellies full, humans are providing dangerous labor and selling precious Earth resources for pennies. Soon, humans will be little more than slaves. Something must be done, but humanity can’t agree on what. A hero arises, but will the hero side with those who wish to reclaim humanity’s isolation, or those searching for ways to compete in the intergalactic market?
2. Justice vs Forgiveness
Perpetrators prey on those who are most vulnerable. No matter how they may redeem themselves, we cannot excuse their actions. Asking others to forgive them puts an unfair burden on those who survived abuse. But sometimes accomplishing great good requires accepting those who have committed great evil. If we harvest the fruit of their misdeeds, does it endorse what they did? To avoid further harm, should we ask victims to tolerate the presence of those who mistreated them? Can justice truly be just if innocents suffer from its application?
ExampleWhen the great empire fell, slaves escaped in droves. Across the seas they formed free nations and formed a great alliance to prevent the power-hungry from conquering them again. However, a new threat arises, and the free nations are unprepared. They look for capable allies and find only one: the remnants of the old empire. Those who once owned thousands of slaves still live there in wealth and luxury. They claim they are sorry for enslaving so many, but they hold onto mighty weapons crafted with stolen labor. The free nations are divided; many of the leaders were once slaves. They ask their new hero: should they pardon the crimes of these slave masters and allow them into the alliance?
3. Safety vs Hope
Tragedy might strike any moment, taking away something or someone dear. If our loved ones are gone forever, we can move on, but we rarely wish to. We grasp for the faintest sliver of hope. But what if maintaining that hope means putting others in jeopardy? Risking all to save a lost soldier may sound heroic, but who will sing our praises when everyone’s dead? Will the people we endanger thank us for risking their lives? We may be forced to decide the cost is too much and let our dearest go.
ExampleThe Queen was holding a great celebration, open to all, when the palace fell into shadow. Where once stood the home of a beloved monarch and the world’s greatest library, now is gaping darkness. The darkness slowly recedes, but leaves barren land in its wake. A great hero calls together the kingdom’s most powerful mages, and the mages agree: they can stop the darkness from fading, and with it the palace, but the cost may be too great. If shadow realm is not dispelled, it may instead envelope the entire kingdom. The hero must choose, and soon, or it will be too late to save the Queen.
4. Loyalty vs Independence
Those who take care of us also restrain us. A parent may protect their child while robbing the child of self-determination. A organization may fund a charity while attaching needless strings. How much do we owe those who have given us all we have? Are we bound to honor them, compromising our own needs in the process? Or is it fair to break away as soon as it suits us? When we must choose to remain loyal or pursue our own happiness, we often divide and turn on each other.
ExampleThough short on resources, the Interplanetary Science Foundation funded a colony on a promising new planet, hoping to find valuable minerals. The Foundation employees who arrived there went straight to work, setting up new homes and equipment on the Foundation’s dime. But as they grew to love their beautiful new home, they realized that extracting all the minerals their employer needs will irrevocably damage it. The colonists created a plan to become self-sufficient, but they can’t maintain the colony and pay the Foundation back. The Foundation sends a hero to investigate. Will the hero insist the colonists must do as the Foundation wishes or tell the Foundation to let the colony go?
5. Kindness vs Prudence
We want to be kind and giving, but being virtuous will not protect us from the consequences of our actions. Assisting an enemy may allow them to regain their strength and turn on us. Helping a friend may cause them to become dependent on us. Making new alliances may also create new enemies. To make the right choice, we may be forced to measure the real suffering we might avert against the suffering our kindness could cause. Then we must ask: how much is our virtue worth?
ExampleTwo great nations have been allies for centuries, but the northern kingdom grew too confident in their alliance and became reckless. The north spent little on their own defenses, and they provoked their western neighbor by sending settlers into its lands. Now the northern kingdom is ravaged by war and begging its southern ally for help. A heroic warrior and diplomat from the south must decide: is it wise to help the reckless neighbor, making enemies of a powerful kingdom? Or should they leave their friends to die?
Most humans can’t be classified as pure good or pure evil, yet we find reasons to fight. By using these divisions in our stories, we can make meaningful commentary, raise the tension, or even allow both sides to win.
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