Morton's Fork

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"The king is having sex with his daughter, and to keep suitors from marrying her, he asks them to solve a riddle. If they don't solve it, he kills them. If they do solve it, he also kills them, since the answer is 'the king is having sex with his daughter.'"
Narrator, "Pericles, Prince of Tired Plots" by Francis Heaney

A character is presented two alternatives, A and B. If the character chooses A, then something bad happens. If he or she chooses B, a similar or identical bad thing happens—but for a different reason.

The name comes from the tax-collecting practices of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor under Henry VII. He reasoned that anyone who was living extravagantly was rich, and so could afford high taxes, while anyone who was living frugally had saved a lot, and so could afford high taxes. Bear in mind before you get too crazy that this was typically used to keep people well-known to be well-off anyway from trying to weasel their way into not paying; he wasn't exactly trying to collect from peasants in hovels. Instead, he was trying to abolish a then-common excuse for not paying taxes (that is, not having any money to do so).

This is often confused with "Hobson's choice." Thomas Hobson leased horses, and in order to make sure all got used and exercised, he had customers automatically assigned the one nearest the door rather than let them pick which one they wanted; the customer's "choice" was "Take the horse assigned, or don't get any horse." A Hobson's choice is a false choice because although there are two results, one is so empty you must take the other. A Morton's Fork is a false choice because there is only one result to take.

Compare Xanatos Gambit, where this is weaponized in a specific type of Plan and often used by The Chessmaster. See also Sadistic Choice, which similarly forces characters to choose between two untenable choices, except that it's Played for Drama. Characters often attempt to respond by Taking a Third Option, with varying degrees of success. They may instead pick one to Get It Over With. If they get sick of being cheated, see Ballistic Discount. If the fork is deliberately placed into a test, this is Unwinnable Training Simulation.

Examples of Morton's Fork include:


Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Utilized to epic proportions in the manga version of the final battle against Chaos in Sailor Moon, in which the main character has the choice of either destroying Chaos utterly and the Cauldron with it, thus dooming their galaxy to a slow extinction as no new lives will be created from it or just possibly momentarily delaying the Ultimate Evil's return resulting in a massive intergalatic war...in which hundreds of billions of people may die anyway but would still end up being reborn because the Cauldron is still there. Guess which option she chooses?
    • That's actually sugar-coating the choice. Chaos would likely return from being "destroyed utterly", too, and the second option listed there is actually the third option. The second option—which was taken by Sailor Cosmos in her original timeline—was simply to flee, leaving the Cauldron intact, but not even delaying Chaos.
  • During the fight with Dynamis in Mahou Sensei Negima Dynamis fakes being downed then launches an attack that Negi can make go through him. If he does, his students will be hit and killed. If he doesn't, he takes a huge sword to the stomach, but can heal it off. Not stated but quite probable is that either choice will also probably cause him to go berserk, either due to having to use Magic Erebea for a healing factor or rage at what happened to his students.
  • Episode 11 of Puella Magi Madoka Magica comes down to this. An incredibly powerful witch called Walpurgisnacht is coming, and Homura has three choices:


Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • There's a Chuck Dixon arc wherein Two-Face kidnaps Robin and forces him to choose between hanging Batman and District Attorney Meany. Robin attempts to Take a Third Option and reminds Two-Face of his schtick, Two-Face flips his coin, and Meany's number is up. The trapdoor drops, Meany starts to hang, and Robin, still thinking outside the box, throws a batarang to sever the rope—which causes Meany to drop into the water below, and drown. Two-Face then tries to kill Batman, with predictable results. Morton's Fork applies because not only was Two-Face clearly planning on killing both men no matter who Robin chose, but he also managed to plan for the third option.
    • Two-Face, and occasionally other villains in the Batman mythos (particularly the Joker, depending on what day of the week it is) use stuff like this all the time.
  • At one point in Ex Machina, Mayor Hundred is on a talk-radio show and has been asked if he, in the eventuality that Osama bin Laden was captured and put on trial in the US, would support or oppose his execution. Answering yes goes against his own political statements as a firmly anti-death-penalty politician, but answering no makes him sound like he is sympathetic to bin Laden. He instead calls the interviewer a "motherfucker" and walks out, pointing out to his staff that there is absolutely no correct answer to that question.


Film[edit | hide]

  • While in the Saw series, most of the traps essentially did this, traps set by Amanda were inescapable. This left victims the choice of dying horribly from the trap or killing themselves horribly while trying to escape the trap with no option to survive.
  • In Life of Brian, Brian doesn't want to be the Messiah. Unfortunately:

Brian: I'm not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly!
Girl: Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.
Brian: What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right! I am the Messiah!
Followers: He is! He is the Messiah!

  • In Mystic River, Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) confronts Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) about the murder of Markum's daughter. Markum is wrongfully convinced that Boyle killed her, so he tells him to, "Admit it and I'll let you live." Boyle confesses to save his life, so Markum kills him. In the book this is made a little clearer, and (slightly) justified. Jimmy needs to know WHY his daughter was killed, and he's demanding an honest answer. When Dave answers, Jimmy can tell that he's lying, and kills him for lying about the reason.

Folklore[edit | hide]

  • There is a legend that says one of the Han Emperors of China one day met a Silver Lightning Snake. The snake said: If you cut my head off, I will destroy you, if you cut my tail off, I will destroy your empire. The emperor cut her in half. From the remains sprang Wang Mang, the guy who split the Han-Dynasty in half and was later overthrown by Han Guangwu, who founded the Later Han.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • Probably the most famous example amongst modern literature is Catch-22. There are several instances of this used during the story, the most notable being the reason for why pilots had to fly missions: pilots would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if they didn't, but if they were sane they had to fly them. If they flew them they were crazy and didn't have to; but if they didn't want to they were sane and had to. This example is so famous that this dilemma is frequently called a Catch-22 in common usage.
  • The Lady or the Tiger, by Frank R. Stockton. A young man and a barbarian princess, the only daughter of the king, fall in love. Since this is Star-Crossed Lovers, specifically Forbidden Love, the young man is condemned to the possibility of gruesome death in the arena: He must choose between two doors. Behind one is a hungry tiger, and behind the other is a beautiful woman whom he must marry. When he looks to the barbarian princess (who knows which door holds which) for a hint, she faces a Morton's Fork, since whether her lover is killed or given to a hated rival, either way she will lose him.
  • In Chalice by Robin McKinley, one of the main characters is a former priest of fire and has to concentrate before touching anyone to avoid magically burning them. In order to manufacture a grievance against him, his feudal lord deliberately trips in front of him. If he catches his lord, he'll burn him, which is an insult; if he doesn't, he's letting him fall, which is also an insult.
  • The Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson contains a somewhat fictionalized description of the British Double Cross System during the Second World War, which puts it explicitly in these terms. It's described as feeding "Strange Loops" to German intelligence—that is, bits of information which if believed lead to one false conclusion, and if disbelieved lead to a different false conclusion. The prototypical Strange Loop is said to be, "Most of your agents are working for us, and are feeding you Strange Loops."
  • In Dan Abnett's Warhammer 40,000 novel Brothers of the Snake, Khiron asks to be exposed to the sea serpents of their home world: if they eat him, he is acquitted and will be mourned, and if they refuse, his fellow Space Marines will know he is tainted and execute him. He wants to Get It Over With, as the evidence against him is very strong. Fortunately, new evidence turns up in time to rescue him.
    • This is only Morton's Fork due to Values Dissonance. To the reader, the outcome is equally bad either way (death). The Adeptus Astartes, however, are extremely honor-conscious; a fatal acquittal is a FAR better fate in their eyes than being seen as tainted.
      • Another side here is whether "Battle Brothers" manage to save his geneseed. Which they won't do if it's presumed severely tainted, of course.
  • In the classic of Story of Robin Hood, Robin is given the choice of hunting the Prince's deer and being arrested for destruction of royal property, and going against a bet, with the penalty being his execution. Robin chooses to hunt the deer to prove his skill and runs away before he can be executed.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has the protagonists given the choice of dying in the vacuum of space for refusing to say something nice about Vogon Poetry or finding something nice to say about Vogon Poetry... and then dying in the vacuum of space. However, the Vogon Captain only reveals this additional clause to Option B after they've already tried to say something nice, so it's not clear whether he was going to do that all along or just felt offended by their pitiful attempt to compliment his work.
    • Given the way Vogons are portrayed throughout the series, "was going to do that all along" sounds highly plausible.

Jeltz: "Counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor..." Death's too good for them.

  • In Players of Gor Tarl Cabot is given one of these: he is about to have a hunting sleen (think man-eating tiger, only Gorean and therefore worse) set upon him from a hundred yards away, and he can either stand his ground and be killed by it quickly, or panic and run into a pack of urts (think giant rats, only... etc) where he will die from being eaten alive in hundreds of much smaller bites. His gleeful enemy informs him that many men think they will wait for the sleen, only for their nerve to fail them at the last moment and die of urt bites instead.
  • Candide was given by the Bulgars the choice between being beaten 36 times in succession by 2,000 soldiers or having 20 bullets put into his brain. His wish to Take a Third Option being impossible, he chose to run the gauntlet, but soon realized the second option was more merciful.
  • Dragonlance:
    • In the novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Raistlin refers to this as "the Ogre's Choice - 'die fast or die slow.'" The choice at this point being either entering a forest no one has ever come out of alive, or turning back into the pack of draconians hunting them.
    • The novel The Siege of Mount Nevermind offers another fork: leaders of the enemies of the dark knights are offered the chance to defect after being defeated. If they don't take the offer, they are summarily executed; if they do take the offer they are executed since the knights wouldn't trust someone willing to turn traitor.
  • Soviet-era Lithuanian literature was quite fond of this. E.g., one well-known short story is about an old man who is brutally beaten and dragged away (possibly to be murdered) by the Nazis for speaking Lithuanian, which was prohibited during their occupation. Consequently, his daughter stops speaking Lithuanian and does whatever she can to please the occupiers-so they brutally rape her. In other words, whether or not you collaborate with the enemy, you're in for mind-shatteringly terrible physical violence!
  • A "Murphy's Laws of Parenting" book (don't remember the exact title) had a classic example, how to deal with the baby crying through the night. The wrong way is to comfort the baby every time he/she cries, which will reinforce the behavior, resulting in both parents getting little or no sleep. The right way is to ignore the crying until the baby stops on his/her own...resulting in both parents getting little or no sleep. (As most parents eventually learn, this sort of situation comes up very, very often.)
    • Both alternative are praised or demonized by different education systems. It's actually possible to train a baby not to cry, but it's not something you can teach easily, as different babies act very differently. Still, prepared parents can Take a Third Option if the baby is not crying for the sake of it.
  • Myth Conceptions: The king of Possiltum hires Skeeve as court magician to defeat an invading army. The fact that the army is apparently unstoppable and Skeeve and Aahz are likely to die in the attempt isn't the biggest problem; the problem is that it's now a matter of principle that the kingdom is choosing to rely on magic for its defenses rather than the military. If they lose, or take the money and run, the reputation of magicians everywhere suffers; if they win, they'll be assassinated on the way back, on the orders of the general who's pissed that the king hired a magician instead of using the army.

Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

  • In one episode of Important Things with Demetri Martin, a sketch has him choosing whether to sit next to a beautiful young woman or an old man at a wedding reception. Both scenarios end with the same savage beating by the same group of thugs.
  • In the final episode of Blackadder II, Blackadder is given a choice: admit to being in love with Satan "and all his little wizards" and get his testicles chopped off with a scythe and roasted over a fire, or don't admit it and be held upside down in a vat of warm marmalade...and get his testicles chopped off with a scythe and roasted over a fire. Naturally he chooses the former, but is "rescued" before the threat can be carried out.
  • In the penultimate episode of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, the senshi find themselves facing down Mamoru, who's been possessed and corrupted by Metallia. If they lose the battle, the world will be destroyed, but the only way to win the battle will also trigger the end of the world. They win the battle and the world does end, though a Heroic Sacrifice helps it get better.
  • Usually invoked Once an Episode on 'Allo 'Allo!, where René is constantly put in a position where he can help the resistance and be shot by the Nazis, or collaborate with the Nazis and get shot by the resistance. Rule of Funny keeps him alive.
    • One episode has this happen where he is forced to collaborate with the Nazis, the Resistance, and the Communist Resistance, all who will kill him if they find out he's been working with the other.
  • In How I Met Your Mother, Lily and Marshal have a bet to see who can collect 5 people's phone numbers first. If Marshall wins, they have sex in the bathroom. If Lily wins, they have sex in the bathroom. Lily comments that this is their standard wager.
  • In an episode of Stargate Atlantis, after everything goes predictably wrong, Rodney is asked what options they have. His response?

Rodney: Let me see, we've got quick death, slow death, painful death, cold, lonely death...


Music[edit | hide]

  • The Clash, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go":

If I go there will be trouble
If I stay it will be double


Mythology and Religion[edit | hide]

  • Cuchulain in Irish myth would lose his strength if he refused a meal, or consumed dogflesh. His enemies learned this and promptly invited him to dine on dogflesh, meaning he'd lose his powers either way.
  • Older Than Feudalism example from the New Testament: The Pharisees tried this trick several times to try and turn Jesus' popularity against him. In Mark 12:13, they asked whether the Jews should pay the oppressive taxes imposed on them by their Caesar. If he said yes, then he was acknowledging that Caesar ruled over the Jews. If he said no, he was guilty of treason. He didn't let this trip him up. The phrase "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's" is familiar enough, but the subtext isn't quite obvious: apparently, when the Pharisees showed him the coin with Caesar's image, they must have realised they were dealing with the (obviously, forbidden) image of a false god, and for that reason were ready to stop arguing about matters of impiety.
    • Another interpretation is that it was an intentional bit of ambiguous wordplay that can go either way. After all, what isn't God's?
  • Nasruddin Hodja acted as a Trickster, especially when people pestered him for a piece of wisdom. Once when he had to preach but wasn't in a mood for this, he talked his way out of it... three times in a row:

Nasruddin: O people of Akshahir! Do you know and understand what I am about to say to you?
The people: No, we don't.
Nasruddin: What?! How can I speak to such ignorant people! (leaves)
Nasruddin (one week later): O people of Akshahir! Do you know and understand what I am about to say to you?
The people: (remembering what had happened the last time) Yes, we do.
Nasruddin: Wonderful! Then there is no need for me to speak to you today.
Nasruddin (one more week later): O people of Akshahir! Do you know and understand what I am about to say to you?
The people: (Some shout "No", some "Yes")
Nasruddin: Wonderful! Now let those who know tell those who do not know.

  • Buddha met his death this way when he was kindly offered a meal which unknowingly contained bad food. While Buddha knew the food wasn't safe to eat, the people offering it to him didn't. Either Buddha could have gone against his beliefs and refused hospitality or eaten the food and let his health suffer. He ate the food and died from it, but was fine as it was his time to die.

Newspaper Comics[edit | hide]

  • Doonesbury ran a picture of an American flag in response to the proposed anti-flag desecration amendment. Every way of disposing of it would be in violation of the amendment, meaning it had to be kept forever.

Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • Dungeons & Dragons
    • One issue of Dragon magazine has a list of riddles the gynosphinx might use, with the usual deal that if the PCs fail to answer them correctly, they're lunch. One of them, to be issued when the sphinx's hunger overcomes her fairness, has the solution "Kill me".
    • Paladins sooner or later tend to face the dilemma of "To Be Lawful or Good?" - which both is an in-character trouble and may mean fall from grace on the spot upon either choice.
      • A particularly infamous was the paradox of a Paladin being sent by his lord to kill a succubus and than finding out that the succubus had been summoned by a wizard, both of whom genuinely and mutually loved each other. A paladin, bound by his oath, must protect pure love but also obey commands given by a legitimate authority.
        • Part of the material compiled in Book of Exalted Deeds was dedicated to things like giving the Paladin a way out or third option: when faced with this dilemma, protecting pure love is more important and takes precedence, and therefore you ignore the order. In fact, you are encouraged to figure out whether the 'legitimate' authority might actually be corrupt, because a just leader wouldn't (knowingly) give you such an order.
      • Forgotten Realms materials specifically noted that while paladins generally agree on "Paladin's Virtues" per classic work of a retired paladin, different faiths and orders has each its own dogma and agenda, so they have different priorities and interpretations. In other words, paladins of gods promoting optimism and vigilance obviously may have disagreements that don't fall under "To Be Lawful or Good", with each clearly following their own dogma. While being inclined to resolve these unresolvable conflicts in the spirit of goodwill and cooperation, what's with being Lawful Good. That's even before an individual paladin runs into something truly non-standard.
  • Paranoia is all about setting up situations where The Computer and your secret society both assign you dangerous, mutually contradictory goals, and have the means to punish you if you don't deliver. And then you have to deal with your fellow Troubleshooters and all of their contradictory goals.
    • And if you're still alive, the debriefing may involve variations of the old "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?"
      • One of the best examples is from the adventure module Me and My Warbot Mark IV, which includes a "debriefing questionnaire" to be completed at the end of the adventure. Instructions on the form include the line "Answer all questions fully, completely, correctly, and honestly. Failure to do so is treason!". And of course, Question #6 is "YOUR SECURITY CLEARANCE IS INSUFFICIENT TO VIEW THIS QUESTION. HAVE A NICE DAYCYCLE." But it still has a blank for the character to write in his answer...
      • A popular question is "Are you a happy Communist? Yes/No". As long as the player isn't allowed to elaborate, you either say you're a Communist (treason) or you're not happy (also treason). An even more insidious one, which will likely get you even if you elaborate, is "Are Communists happy? Explain why/why not". If you think Communists are happy, you imply Communism is a good way to live (Communist sympathiser!) If not, the Computer will ask why anyone would want to be a commie if it makes them unhappy (it doesn't make sense, and implies you're lying or hiding something).
  • This is very common in Chess as a way of gaining advantage over one's opponent. For example, combination attacks such as forks and discovered attacks allow a player to threaten two pieces simultaneously with the idea that their opponent won't be able to protect both of them.
  • There's a method of play in bridge called a Morton's Fork Coup, which gives the defender two options, both of which cost him a trick.
  • Certain articles on Warhammer 40,000 present this as the key to winning. If you have a squad of Devastators positioned to cover an objective, for instance, and your foe has troops sitting on that objective, then you have presented him with two bad options: sit where you are and get blasted to pieces, or abandon a key position to go chasing after the enemy.
  • Pretty much the only strategy possible in Tic Tac Toe beyond "hope your opponent is an idiot".

Theater[edit | hide]

  • The page quote is a reasonably accurate summary of act I of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The title character tries to Take a Third Option by stalling; this leads the king becoming suspicious of him and deciding to kill him anyway.
  • Nathan the Wise is set in Jerusalem during a ceasefire in the course of the Crusades. In the interest of keeping that peace, Saladin and the Catholic Church have agreed on a law that makes both proselytizing and apostasy punishable by death. The local representative of the Corrupt Church asks the title character to answer which of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is the true religion, knowing that because of those laws, Nathan will be put to death if he chooses any of the three. Nathan takes a third (technically fourth) option.
  • Repeatedly played for laughs in The Merchant of Venice.
    • Launcelot, who wants to get out of working for Shylock, reasons that his master is a devil...but still, if he runs away and breaks his contract, he'll commit a sin, and then he'll be working for the devil anyway. He finally makes up his mind to run away, since he figures that the real devil is the lesser of two evils.
    • Later, Launcelot explains to Jessica that because the children suffer for the sins of the parents, she'll go to hell for being Shylock's daughter—the only way out is to turn out not to be his daughter. Jessica points out that, by that logic, she'd go to hell as punishment for her mother's unfaithfulness. Launcelot sums it up: "Truly then I fear you are damned both by father and mother; thus when I shun Scylla, your father, I fall into Charybdis, your mother; well, you are gone both ways."
  • In As You Like It, Touchstone tries to argue for unchastity in this manner. It doesn't work.

Touchstone : No, truly, unless thou wert hard-favoured; for honesty coupled to beauty is to have honey a sauce to sugar.
Jacques [Aside]: A material fool!
Audrey: Well, I am not fair; and therefore I pray the gods make me honest.
Touchstone : Truly, and to cast away honesty upon a foul slut were to put good meat into an unclean dish.


Video Games[edit | hide]

  • In the first Marvel Ultimate Alliance: In Mephisto's Realm, you are faced with the Sadistic Choice of letting either Nightcrawler or Jean Grey fall to their death (and it's impossible to save them both). At the end of the game, if you chose to save Nightcrawler, Jean comes back as the Dark Phoenix. On the other hand, if you chose to save Jean, Mystique (Nightcrawler's mother) murders Charles Xavier in revenge, and the X-Men consequently disband. Either way, the Watcher will tell you that "It was unfortunate..."
  • Deus Ex and its sequel.
    • None of the endings are outright happy endings. In two endings of the sequel, they are decidedly downbeat.
    • Also used throughout the game, a perfect example is Lebedev and Anna. If you want to save Lebedev, you have to kill Anna; if you don't do anything, Anna kills him and berates you (however, you can take a third option and knock Lebedev out, without killing either).
    • After the mission to save Paul, if you investigated UNATCO, you know too much, so UNATCO turns against you. If not, you saved Paul, so UNATCO turns against you.
    • Human Revolution is stuck here by default, since it's a prequel and presumably you should know what happens.
  • In Star Trek: Borg, while on the Borg ship you are given two options: fight the Borg or try to access the computer. Either way gets you assimilated by the Borg.
  • The most infamous quest in Fallout 3, Tenpenny Tower, has no good resolution. If you side with the bigots inside the Tower, you go off and massacre the Ghouls (most of whom, aside from Roy Phillips himself, were actually pretty decent people). If you side with Roy Phillips and storm the Tower, all the Tenpenny residents get massacred (again, most of them other than Tenpenny and Burke were decent if snooty people). If you think you're clever and try to Take a Third Option by using diplomacy to convince both sides to live together inside the Tower peacefully, it initially seems like a happy ending, but after a couple weeks Phillips flips out and massacres all the humans anyway. Not to mention, the humans die even if you kill Phillips before he does so.
    • Likewise, the deliberately morally ambiguous DLC The Pitt has no completely good resolution. If you help Wernher overthrow Ashur, the slaves are freed, but without Ashur's scientific expertise and resources it's implied the cure for Trog Syndrome is highly unlikely to be discovered, and the slaves will either have to remain and face inevitable mutation or abandon their community for the hostile Wasteland. If you crush Wernher and let Ashur maintain the status quo, Ashur promises to free the slaves as soon as he discovers the Cure, but until then they'll have to live under the inhumanly brutal repression of his Raider lackeys, and it's also implied that Ashur lacks sufficient control over his Raiders to completely liberate the slaves ever if the Cure is released.
    • The DLC Point Lookout also has this: When you have to choose whether to kill Desmond or Calvert, Calvert in both options will kill you (or try to do so).
  • This happens frequently in Fable I. For example, you are given the choice between sparing and killing the bandit leader Twinblade. If you spare him, he sends assassins after you shortly afterward. If you kill him, assassins come after you shortly after for revenge.
  • In Knights of the Old Republic II: Sith Lords:
    • Your first visit to Nar Shadaa has you confronted with a beggar asking for money. Whether or not you give him anything, something horrible happens, ending with someone getting stabbed. The only difference is in who does the stabbing (the beggar if you didn't give him money) and in who is getting stabbed (the beggar if you did give him money). Kreia uses this as evidence for her Ayn Rand-esque personal philosophy.
    • Whenever you make any choice that nets you light side or dark side points, Kriea will berate you for disturbing the balance of the universe. And for not choosing a side. Apathy is Death.
  • In Star Wars: The Old Republic:
    • Republic Trooper players get confronted with a classic halfway through the third chapter of their storyline - Havoc Squad respond to a distress call from Sergeant Ava Jaxo, a decidedly feisty young Special Forces soldier who is a non-companion romance option for male characters on Coruscant. Summoning them to a hidden Imperial prison facility currently containing more than three hundred important Republic personnel. Storming the prison goes smoothly at first but turns out to be a cunningly laid trap by Imperial General Rakton, who shows up with a fleet of destroyers and start shooting the station apart hard. The player is given the choice of A) diverting power from the maintenance levels where Sergeant Jaxo is hiding to the shields, which will kill her but buy enough time for all three hundred and fourteen prisoners to make it to the escape ship or B) rescuing Jaxo, who is begging for her life, but condemning half or more of the prisoners to die in the process and causing Jaxo to suffer from survivor's guilt and never forgive you.
  • In the ending of Grand Theft Auto IV, whether you choose to take the money or kill Dimitri in the penultimate mission, you will lose Kate. If you kill Dimitri, the mob boss you were working for gets pissed at you for souring the deal and kills Kate in a drive-by shooting. If you take the money, Kate will call you out on abandoning your morals and will leave you anyway.
    • Taking the money also results in Dimitri betraying you for no reason and sending someone to kill you, which results in Roman getting killed.
  • The morality choices in Army of Two: The 40th Day are infamous for being like this; picking the obviously "bad" choice has negative consequences, but the seemingly "good" choice usually also results in a similarly crappy outcome later on.
  • None of the three endings to Singularity are "good", two are obvious bad endings while the third, seeming Golden Ending is also revealed to have negative consequences in a twist at the very end. More specifically, the endgame gives you the choice of either killing The Obi-Wan Barisov and ruling the world alongside Evil Overlord Demichev, killing Demichev and Barisov, or killing Demichev then sacrificing yourself to restore history to its rightful course.
    • If you kill Demichev and Barisov, the world descends into chaos as the Soviet Union collapses while you rise as a ruthless dictator launching a campaign for world domination from the United States.
    • If you kill Barisov and side with Demichev, the two of you take over the world under a totalitarian dictatorship and ultimately start a new Cold War against each other.
    • If you kill Demichev and try to restore the original timeline by going to the past and stopping yourself from saving him in 1955, the world seems to return to normal and you're warped back to the beginning of the game, only this time your helicopter flies off into the sunset without incident instead of getting shot down by temporal distortion. However, The Reveal shows that it is not the original timeline, but rather one where Barisov took over the world himself under Soviet principles (although, given what you know of Barisov and your teammate's reaction to his statue, it's suggested his rule is at least possibly benevolent).
  • This is the entire point of fal'Cie Focuses from Final Fantasy XIII. Fail your Focus or give up on it? You get turned into a nightmarish shambling monster called a Ci'eth forever. Succeed in your Focus? You get turned into a pillar of crystal forever. You're screwed either way and that's the way the fal'Cie like it.
    • A much harsher example in the sequel, regardless of whether Caius succeeds in killing the goddess or dies trying, time/the world is still ultimately screwed, arguably making all of your efforts pointless.
  • If you try to skip Cosmo Canyon for the first time in Final Fantasy VII, you can either try to proceed on foot and discover that you need the buggy to cross the river, or try to proceed in the buggy and have it break down before you get to the river. Either way, you cannot progress past the river until you visit Cosmo Canyon.
  • Alpha Protocol's entire story up until the last level. Every world location gives you a Sadistic Choice at some point. No matter what you do, the outcome is practically the same. Taipei? You let Ronald Sung get assassinated, which destabilizes the region and worsens Chinese-Taiwanese relations, or you let the Chinese plan to incite nationalist riots happen, which kills hundreds of people, destabilizes the region, and worsens Chinese-Taiwanese relations. Rome? Either you let the bomb explode, killing hundreds of people and tightening the EU's security policy, or you let Madison get killed, which renders her a martyr that, you guessed it, makes the EU tighten its security policy. Moscow? Almost no matter what you do, it's clear that Halbech won't have much problem finding another mafiya boss to smuggle weapons for them... Unless you go with Surkov, which means the rise of a Russian equivalent to Halbech under his leadership instead.
  • Alone in the Dark (2008): Let Sarah live, and she becomes a Tragic Monster. Kill her, and you become the monster.
  • Portal 2 sets one up in-story for the protagonist, Chell. After the plot twist midway through, she's confronted with the dilemma of putting the old Big Bad back in charge of the facility, who will likely kill her, or leaving the current one in charge, in which case the place will likely explode with her inside. Gameplay-wise, it's still a But Thou Must!.
  • Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels has two warp zones out of nine that actually send you back. If you didn't want to go back, the only other way was to jump into the pit. Of course, if you were playing for a high score, this would actually be beneficial.
  • In the "Dong Zhuo in Luo Yang" scenario in Dynasty Warriors 5 Empires, you get the option of participating in the Alliance Against Dong Zhuo after the first turn. If you take part and win, Dong Zhuo dies and his kingdom collapses. If you lose or don't take part, about a couple turns later Lu Bu kills Dong Zhuo and takes over his kingdom. No doubt a lot of DW5E players approved.
  • The second Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney game (Justice for All), features a version of this that takes up the entire plot of the last case. Phoenix's friend and legal assistant Maya Fey is kidnapped by an assassin and is told she will be killed unless he gets Matt Engarde, a suspect in a murder, found innocent. Over time Phoenix finds out that his client is truly guilty (he hired the assassin holding Maya hostage to kill the victim) and that if his client gets off the hook, another suspect, a truly innocent woman, will be charged and executed for the murder. Therefore, Phoenix must choose between defending a killer to save a friend while an innocent person is killed as a murderer, or letting said friend die to see justice done as well as saving a innocent woman's life. That being said, with Phoenix being a morally upstanding attorney who fights for justice, this choice is not so simple for him. However in the end Phoenix manages to Take a Third Option and shows the assassin holding Maya hostage how much of immoral monster said assassin's client is, along with proof that Engarde was planning on selling out the assassin anyway. Since this assassin strongly believes that Even Evil Has Standards, he eventually drops his agreement with Engarde and lets Maya go, giving Engarde no leg to stand on. This twists the situation around so that Engarde is now the one facing a Morton's Fork: either he gets off as "not guilty" of the crime but the assassin will kill him for his act of betrayal, or he goes to jail to face the death penalty. No matter what Phoenix does at that point, Engarde snaps and screams in court that he's guilty.
  • Persona 3 gives us the choice offered by Ryoji/The Appriser to the members of SEES regarding Nyx and The Fall. He offers to take their memories away by killing him so that they'll be able to live the last few months unaware of the impending doom, before they all die or choose to let him live, in which case they can count the days until Nyx's arrival and fighting Nyx would only put them in death row before everybody else. The choice that the player makes determines the ending of the game.
  • One of the many sidequests in Xenoblade requires you to fetch a jewel used as an engagement present and give it to one of two corners of a love triangle. However, Shulk's precognition tells him that the woman, at least, will end up unhappy either way.
  • A small side quest in The Elder Scrolls 3: Tribunal deals with a down on his luck elf who asks you for some gold. If you give him gold, he'll demand more and more until he finally declares you're lying about having that much gold and are trying to mock him with your kindness. If you turn him down at any point, he declares you to be a heartless bastard. If you attack him, he vanishes. Either way, he reappears later as a Boss in Mook Clothing.


Web Comics[edit | hide]

  • This page by Luke Surl.
  • Moloch von Zinzer in Girl Genius has "a remarkably astute grasp of the situation" here. Either he follows Agatha on a suicide mission to save her Love Interest, or he parts ways with her, exposing himself to the castle's destructive sense of humour. His attempt to make her consider finding another boyfriend fails.
  • In xkcd:
    • The classic Knights and Knaves puzzle (one always tells the truth, the other always lies...) is parodied in this strip. What makes this a Morton's Fork is that there's a third guy who "stabs anyone who asks tricky questions", making a three-tined Fork. Answer incorrectly, you are lost forever. Stay silent, you are trapped. The only way to answer correctly is to ask a tricky question, at which point, the third guy would kill you. According to the alt-text, the maze goes nowhere. It's just a trap to kill cunning logicians.
    • This strip makes a similar point about DRM.
  • Oglaf pulls a version of this which starts out as a Sadistic Choice (Ivan is presented with either succumbing to poison or licking the antidote off of Sandoval's genitalia), but morphs into a proper Morton's Fork when the antidote turns out to be poison as well. The poor guy can't catch a break.
  • In The Order of the Stick, Tarquin explains that he actually wants his son to fight him later on. If Tarquin wins he is a powerful ruler. If he loses then he becomes immortalized in stories, inspiring more to try to reach what he had, spawning more people like him. To quote him;

"If I win, I get to be a king. If I lose, I get to be a legend."

And as he points out, no matter what Elan does he's already lived like a king for years and Elan doesn't have a chance of taking him down for quite some time. Even if he died completely forgotten and anonymous, he still thinks he's won.
  • Bun-bun faces this at the top of this Sluggy Freelance strip.
  • Nip and Tuck take on headaches feminism can give even its most dedicated supporters.
    • If you use sex appeal, you're pandering to the patriarchy, but you can do what you want with your own body; just don't get on anyone else's case for using sex appeal. If you aren't sexy, you may be repressed, or modest, or poor, or simply not wanting to bother; it all depends on why. Some women can take care of themselves, some can't, and it's irresponsible to treat one as the other. Unless one member of the relationship (male or female) is either fabulously rich or dead broke, it's inappropriate to ALWAYS pay (control freak) or NEVER pay (irresponsible jerk/tightwad); as with all other obligations, a healthy balance works best. The lesson, as always: Use your head and don't listen to ignorant loudmouths (which could apply to several other entries on this page).
  • Amazing Super Powers has this one.
  • Raven from Dark Wings gets a summons about a prospective job with a meeting at 10:00...with the summons deliberately arriving at 9:30. He has to either ignore it, thereby insulting the powerful nobles who sent it, or else be put at an instant bargaining disadvantage by the near-certainty of being late.
  • Vexxarr had a fleet commander who knows how to make his people comply despite the Bleen being... not very amenable.

Captain: Do not question my orders, podling, or I'll have you up on the charge of mutiny!
Helmsman: You realize, a threat like that is only effective if punishment is worse than whatever awaits us inside of that nebula...
Captain: You doubt the severity of His Majesties wrath?
Helmsman: To make an informed decision, I'd need to know what the penalty for mutiny actually is...
Captain: Well... last I checked... treason was met with banishment to the Horse Head nebula...

Western Animation[edit | hide]

Cadet: What's the matter? Don't girls like doing push-ups in the mud?
Lisa: Is there any answer I can give that won't result in you making me do more push-ups?
(Cadets talk amongst themselves for a few seconds)
Cadet: No.

    • In a Treehouse of Horror segment set during the Salem witch trials, Marge was accused of witchcraft and sentenced to being thrown off a cliff. If she died, it would be an "honorable Christian death". If she survived, it'd be taken as proof that she's a witch, in which case she would be executed. The whole thing fell apart when she turned out to be a witch after all, and used her powers to escape punishment and exact revenge. The townsfolk were completely unprepared for this, since the witch trials were apparently less about finding actual witches and more about setting innocent people up as scapegoats for every little thing that went wrong.
    • When Homer goes to India and comes to believe himself a god, Lenny and Carl come to visit him and are met by a guard who offers them a choice between two doors, explaining that Homer Simpson is behind one and a Bengal tiger is behind the other. When it turns out that both doors have a tiger behind them, the guard explains "One of these tigers is named Homer Simpson."
  • In one of the last episodes of the Rocky and Bullwinkle series, Boris was caught in one where, after stealing a raft-load of goods, the award he received for the deed caused the raft to begin sinking. If the goods sunk, Boris would be shot, and if he threw away the award to stop the raft from sinking, he'd still be shot. Whichever one happened, a shot was heard offscreen by the heroes.


Other[edit | hide]

  • There's a well-known story that the Caliph Umar whose army sacked the Library of Alexandria said of its books that either they contradicted the Koran and thus were heretical and should be burned, or they agreed with the Koran and thus were superfluous and should be burned. Either way, they wound up on the bonfire. Though almost certainly false, this legend can be traced back at least to the 13th century.
    • It's reused to similar effect in the pastiche of the Alexandria burning in Small Gods.
    • Also referred to in Final Crisis: Submit, where Black Lightning, having been subjected to the Anti-Life Equation, is burning Darwin's The Origin of Man and states "What disagrees with Darkseid is heresy. What agrees with Darkseid is superfluous."
      • Grant Morrison had previously used the same line in JLA: Rock of Ages in an alternate future where Metron, New God of Knowledge had been subjected to the Equation.
  • There's a classic Jewish Mother joke that works like this: She gives her son two nice ties for his birthday. Next week he goes to dinner at her house wearing one of them. The mother says, "What's the matter, you didn't like the other one?"
    • Some version go further. Following week, the son bring the other tie, and the mother remarks "You used to like the other, why don't you like it anymore?". A week later, the son tries to play smart, wearing no tie (or both at once) to the desparation of the mother "Why I grew up a son that can't dress himself properly!".
      • The only possible alternative, probably, would be to bring both ties and keep changing in and out of them at equally timed intervals - and, when Mother complains that the tie keeps changing color, tell her it's the same tie and that she's going colorblind.
  • And another classic joke referred to by Futurama where captured male explorers are required to choose death or Snoo-snoo. The first one chooses Snoo-snoo since anything is better than death, and is [whatever it actually is changes wildly depending on who's telling it]. The other chooses death and the verdict is announced. "Death!...by Snoo-snoo!"
    • Excellently depicted here.
  • Morton's fork is sometimes employed by Fan Dumb character bashers. For example, this HMS STFU entry for the Harry Potter fandom features someone who bashes Hermione for being studious and Ron for not being studious.
  • If one player manages to get three corners in Tic-tac-toe and has two open paths to win by the other player is left with simply choosing which place their opponent wins with. This is also a common victory scenario in Connect 4.
  • A classic Stock Lateral Thinking Puzzle is built around this idea. A man is to be executed, based on whatever he says next. If it is true, he will be shot. If it is false, he will be hung. The trick is for him to Take a Third Option and say "I will be hung" (or alternatively "This statement is a lie").
  • As the Chuck Norris Fact goes, if you can see Chuck Norris, then he can see you, but if you can't see Chuck Norris, then you may be only seconds away from death.
  • The statement, "Denial is the first sign of a problem." If you say no (such as to drug addiction) you're in denial about being addicted; if you say yes, then you're admitting it.
  • Some examples used in grade school or junior high:
    • Are you PT? If you say yes, you are a pregnant teenager; if no, you aren't potty-trained.
      • Are you a PLP? If so, you're a public leaning post (the bully barges into you) if not, you aren't a proper looking person.
    • {For a male target} "Are you a lesbian trapped inside a man's body?" If he says yes, he is a transsexual; if no, he doesn't like girls (i.e. is gay).
    • "Would you suck my cock if it was clean?"
      • If "Yes.", then cocksucker = true
      • If "No.", then dirtycocksucker = true
  • Fandom.
    1. If you don't watch a series entirely, you are not a true fan.
    2. If you do watch a series entirely, you are not a true fan.

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • The trial of Joan of Arc had a famous unsuccessful one. She was asked if she believed she was "in God's Grace." If she said yes, her overconfidence would brand her as a dangerous fanatic, since no one but God is supposed to know who's in his grace or not. If she said no, however, then it would mean she had been masquerading as a religious figure for trivial ends. Joan, however, figured out the trap quickly enough to answer: "If I'm not, may God put me in it; If I am, may God keep me there." The wording was considered both humble and pious. Centuries later, this witty reply was actually considered as an argument in favor of her canonization.
    • Her death sentence was allegedly based on another one: Given only men's clothing, she had a choice between wearing it (and being condemned for impropriety) or going naked (and being condemned for impropriety, as well as exposing herself to certain other dangers in the enemy prison that she was held in).
      • Punishment for improper clothing or indecency was fine or flogging at the time. Joan of Arc was already considered a militant rebel what was enough to warrant a high treason sentence i.e. qualified death.
  • The medieval and early colonial practice of "dunking" those accused of witchcraft could very easily become this. The accused would have a rope tied to her waist and get thrown into a body of water. If she floated, pull her out and, depending on the region and era, either imprison, hang, or burn her at the stake. If she sank, pull her out and let her go... and if she happened to drown, at least she died innocent.
  • The "Jonah Complex" in psychology, where if you fail something you beat yourself up over it because you're not skilled enough, yet if you succeed you attribute it to pure luck and still beat yourself up over it for not being skilled.
  • In the United States, tax forms include a line for "illegal income." If you don't report it you're evading taxes, if you do report it they turn you in. This is mainly so that when Al Capone is arrested for tax evasion, he can't claim there Aint No Rule—clearly, there is a rule, it's right there on the tax form! (Of course... you could just not have illegal income, or at least not be so blatant about your other crimes that it reaches that point.)
    • One person took this to court, after being arrested for tax evasion for failing to declare his earnings as a bookmaker, he used the fifth amendment to claim they had no right to expect him to report them. The official ruling from that case was the IRS can require you to divulge how much you made from illegal enterprise, as long as they don't require you to specify what type of illegal activity you did.
      • After Nixon used people's tax records to harass people with the FBI, the IRS is no longer allowed to disclose information if there isn't already an investigation.
  • A good chunk of history points to those suspected of treason or heresy running into this problem. If you confessed, you were severely punished; if you didn't confess (innocent or not), you were tortured and put through all kinds of hell until you confessed, and then you were severely punished.
    • Still true in any society that uses torture or abuse to get confessions. If you're accused of a crime (whether you're guilty or not) you can confess and be punished for the crime, or you can refuse to confess and they'll torture you until you do.
    • Still exists in societies that don't use torture with plea bargains. You can sing or have a whole bunch of charges thrown on you. Either way you go to jail and have made an enemy.
  • This was the fate of the accused in the Salem witch trials, apocryphally.[1] One man, Giles Corey, took a third option and refused to plead either innocent or guilty. And was crushed to death trying to get a plea. His last words? "More weight."
    • An explanation: Giles Corey was a Real Life Rules Lawyer, and knew that if he died under interrogation, he was still legally a Christian and his sons could inherit his property. Confess, and he would no longer be considered a Christian and his property would be forfeit. And he'd be executed, obviously. Denying the charges would result in his conviction and execution, as the trials were flagrantly rigged, and again his property would be forfeit. So, by refusing to enter any plea at all, he saved his family from ruination and earned a Dying Moment of Awesome.
  • It either isn’t crunched up enough or you won't see it. Who said a Morton's Fork cannot be hilarious?
  • In Nazi-occupied Poland, helping Jews (even selling them food) was a capital crime (typically for your whole family), and if you lived in a village hiding Jews, not turning in neighbors hiding Jews meant you and your male relatives would be fair game for execution if they were caught (if many villagers hid Jews, your whole village might be destroyed in reprisal). On the other hand, if you did decide to inform on Jews, it was considered treason by the Polish Underground State, and by extension the Polish Home Army and also punished by execution.
    • Not to mention that in remote villages Nazis could simply have executed an informant anyway.
    • Speaking of Nazis, some international lawyers have been appealing the Nuremberg Defense ("We were just following orders.") on the grounds that its rejection places soldiers in a Morton's Fork situation: Either be thrown in prison and possibly executed for war crimes, or be thrown in prison and probably executed for insubordination.
      • Just for clarification, this argument is based on the safe premise, because it was a Morton's Fork only if the fall of the Third Reich was assured (in which case they could have capitulated).
  • Saddam Hussein had a copy of the Quran written in his blood as a "tribute to Islam". However, writing a Quran in blood is actually considered blasphemous by most Islamic authorities. The problem is that, now that it exists, destroying it would also be blasphemous.
    • A similar problem when fringe cults write their loony apocrypha into their copies of the Christian Bible - it is against Biblical law to add anything more to it (with the Revelation of Saint John of Patmos being canonically the final book), but what's a Christian supposed to do with these tainted copies if he or she ends up with one from a big box of books purchased at a yard sale? It'd be kinda wrong to burn it, since most of the text is still God's Word.
    • In Catholic Church, biblical texts that do not have Imprimatur (i.e. are not approved by a proper canonical body) are treated as any other secular book.
  • Parts of US business law are pretty much engineered around Morton's Forks. In particular, there are laws on the book for penalizing businesses who charge less than their competition, charge more than their competition, and charge the same amount as their competition. The only thing preventing the fall of capitalism with these laws in place is that they're only invoked selectively, often in the favor of large corporations against would-be interlopers.
  • In the semifinal of UFC 6, Oleg Taktarov faced Anthony Macias, who entered as an alternate after Patrick Smith pulled out. The same man promoted both combatants, and he told Macias to throw the fight so that Taktarov would be fresh for the final against a ferocious David "Tank" Abbott. Macias' options: 1. Agree to throw the fight (ruining his professional reputation). 2. Fight Taktarov honestly and lose (burning a bridge and gaining nothing). 3. Fight Taktarov honestly and win, then get stomped into paste by Abbott (ditto). Granted, he wasn't that good a fighter and would've been a footnote to MMA history regardless, but that's a tough situation for any young, budding fighter to find himself in. (He chose #1, BTW.)
  • If a baseball game is tied in the ninth inning and the home team is up, has the bases loaded, there are no outs and the count is 3 balls and no strikes, a pitcher basically has two options: either try to be tricky and risk walking in the winning run, or throwing a juicy pitch down the middle and hope that the batter either misses or something supremely lucky in the field keeps the winning run from scoring if he does hit it.
  • Ending slavery in America probably could not have been accomplished in any less bloody way than it was. To quote Thomas Jefferson on the matter "But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." - Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, (discussing slavery and the Missouri question), Monticello, 22 April 1820

Notes

  1. In fact, pleading innocent was possible and not everyone died. Yay?