A Cornelian dilemma (dilemme cornélien) (also spelt in translation with two "l"'s i.e. "Corneillian") is a dilemma in which someone is obliged to choose between two courses of action either of which will have a detrimental effect on themselves or on someone near to them. In classical drama, this will typically involve the protagonist experiencing an inner conflict that forces them to choose between love and honour or inclination and duty.
The Cornelian dilemma is named after French dramatist Pierre Corneille, in whose play Le Cid (1636) the protagonist, Rodrigue, is torn between two desires: that of the love of Chimène, or avenging his family, who has been wronged by Chimène's father. Rodrigue can either seek revenge and lose the love of his beloved, or renounce revenge and lose his honour: thus embodying the Corneilian Dilemma.
This dilemma is seen in:
- Star Trek: Voyager Episode "Latent Image". After an attack, two crew members are mortally injured with equal chances of survival if treated immediately. The Doctor experiences crippling guilt after being presented with the ethical dilemma of having to make an arbitrary (rather than a reasoned) choice of which patient to save and which to let die, a situation not accounted for in his triage programming.
- Star Trek The Next Generation Episode "The Perfect Mate": Kamala the Metamorph learns the meaning of duty from Captain Picard, and chooses to fulfill her duty despite having fallen in love with the Captain.
- Batman: The Dark Knight, in which the Joker forces Batman to choose between saving his love interest, Rachel, and saving Harvey Dent, a district attorney considered to be Gotham City's best hope for overcoming corruption. Ultimately, Batman chooses to save Rachel, only to discover that the Joker had reversed their true locations, having predicted the choice Batman would make. The subversion highlights the cruelty of the dilemma by denying Batman the expected result of his eventual choice, forcing him to confront both the reality of having made the choice as well as the unexpected consequence of Rachel's subsequent death.
- Batman Forever, where The Riddler forces Batman to choose between saving Robin and saving Dr. Chase Meridian. (Because Batman finds a way to save both, this may not be a true Cornelian dilemma.)
- Spider-Man, where the Green Goblin makes Spider-Man choose between saving Mary Jane Watson or a ferry car full of passengers. (Since Spider-Man saves both Mary Jane and the passengers, this may also not be a true Cornelian dilemma.)
- Saints Row: The Third: The final mission choosing between saving Shaundi or killing Killbane.
- Grand Theft Auto IV: The penultimate mission involves choosing whether it is Roman Bellic or Kate McReary who will be killed.