The road to hell is paved with good intentions

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The road to hell is paved with good intentions is a proverb or aphorism. An alternative form is "Hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works".[1]


The saying is thought to have originated with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote (c. 1150), "L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs" (hell is full of good wishes or desires).[2] An earlier saying occurs in Virgil's Aeneid: "facilis descensus Averno (the descent to hell is easy)".[3]


A common interpretation of the saying is that wrongdoings or evil actions are often masked by good intentions; or even that good intentions, when acted upon, may have unintended consequences. A simple example is the introduction into the US of an invasive species, like the Asian carp, which has become a nuisance due to unexpected proliferation and behaviour.[4]

Another meaning of the phrase is that individuals may have the intention to undertake good actions but nevertheless fail to take action.[5][6] This inaction may be due to procrastination, laziness or other subversive vice.[7] As such, the saying is an admonishment that a good intention is meaningless unless followed through.[8]

Moral certainty can be used to justify the harm done by failing policies and actions. Those with good intentions believe their practices are good for the group; it is self-evident to them. They justify collateral damage in the belief they do a greater good. The Nazi concentration camps were created to hold so-called "racially undesirable elements" of German society. The GULAG system was introduced in order to isolate disloyal elements not contributing to the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Inquisition was established to eradicate heretics in religious states. The harm done is clearly seen, and acknowledged, but is written off as a 'price worth paying'.

On a personal level, taking a subjectively "good action" can land one in a horrific emotional and/or physical state of being, e.g., a soldier goes off to war to fight for the subjective good of their country and ends up with post-traumatic stress disorder.


Psychological studies of the effect of intention upon task completion by professors Peter Gollwitzer, Paschal Sheeran and Sheina Orbell indicate that there is some truth in the proverb.[9] Perfectionists are especially prone to having their intentions backfire in this way.[10] Some[11] have argued that people are more likely to interpret their own actions as more well intended than the actions of others.

Attempts to improve the ethical behaviour of groups are often counter-productive. If legislation is used for such an attempt, people observe the letter of the law rather than improve the desired behaviour. During negotiation, groups that are encouraged to understand the point of view of the other parties are worse at this than those whose perspective is not enlightened.[citation needed] The threat of punishment may make behavior less rather than more ethical.[12] Studies of business ethics indicate that most wrongdoing is not due directly to wickedness but is performed by people who did not plan to err.[13]

Stephen Garrard Post, writing about altruism, suggests that good intentions are often not what they seem and that mankind normally acts from less worthy, selfish motives—"If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it is partly because that is the road they generally start out on."[14]

Artistic references[edit]

Authors who have used the phrase include Charlotte Brontë, Lord Byron, Samuel Johnson,[15] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott,[16] Søren Kierkegaard,[17] and Karl Marx.[18] Ozzy Osbourne used the term in the song "Tonight" on his album Diary of a Madman.

In the movie Highway to Hell, the phrase is taken literally to create one particular scene. The Good Intentions Paving Company has a team of Andy Warhols who grind good-intentioned souls into pavement. "I was only sleeping with my husband's boss to advance his career", says one.[19] The figurative meaning of the phrase is a big part of the plot too, as several characters offer help to the two protagonists on the Road to Hell, but all of them have ulterior motives.

Pink used the phrase in her 2006 song Dear Mr. President to refer to the No Child Left Behind Act.

Madonna uses this line in her 2008 single "4 Minutes," featuring Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, off her eleventh studio album Hard Candy.[20]

The Chainsmokers utilize this phrase in their song Good Intentions featuring BullySongs

The phrase is used in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "In the Pale Moonlight".

A similar phrase, "our best intentions pave the way to hell," was used in Romeo & Juliet (2013 film) by Mercutio after he was stabbed by Tybalt.


  1. ^ "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions", Proverbs, Infobase Publishing, 2007, p. 234, ISBN 9780816066735
  2. ^ Ammer, Christine (1997), The American Heritage dictionary of idioms, ISBN 9780395727744
  3. ^ Mawr, Mrs E. B. (1885), "Hell is paved with good intentions", Analogous Proverbs In Ten Languages, Elliot Stock
  4. ^ Kalman, Izzy (August 16, 2010), "Principle Number One: The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions", Psychology Today, Resilience to Bullying
  5. ^ The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Third ed.). Mifflin Company. 2005. Retrieved March 28, 2013.
  6. ^ The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus (Third ed.). University Press. 2008. Retrieved March 28, 2013.
  7. ^ Collis, Harry; Risso, Mario (1992), "The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions", 101 American English proverbs: understanding language and culture through commonly used sayings, Lincolnwood, Ill: Passport Books, ISBN 9780844254128
  8. ^ Bowden, Charles L., editor; Burstein, Alvin George, editor (1983). Psychosocial Basis of Health Care. Williams & Wilkins. p. 98. ISBN 0-683-00993-1.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  9. ^ Gollwitzer, Peter; Sheeran, Paschal (2006-05-30), "Implementation intentions and goal achievement", Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, ISBN 9780120152384
  10. ^ Powers, T. A. (2005), "Implementation Intentions, Perfectionism, and Goal Progress: Perhaps the Road to Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions", Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31 (7): 902–912, doi:10.1177/0146167204272311
  11. ^ Kruger, Justin; Gilovich, Thomas (2004), "Actions, Intentions, and Self-Assessment: The Road to Self-Enhancement Is Paved with Good Intentions", Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30 (3): 328–339, doi:10.1177/0146167203259932, PMID 15030624
  12. ^ Messick, David (2006-07-11), "The Road to Hell", Ethics in groups, 8, pp. 273–274, ISBN 9780762313006
  13. ^ Nash, Laura L. (1993), Good intentions aside: a manager's guide to resolving ethical problems, ISBN 9780875844299
  14. ^ Post, Stephen Garrard (2002), Altruism & altruistic love, Oxford University Press, p. 203, ISBN 9780195143584
  15. ^ "Hell is paved with good intentions." April 14, 1775 Boswell, James (1791). Life of Samuel Johnson. II.
  16. ^ Pell, Robert Conger (1857), Milledulcia, p. 89
  17. ^ Kierkegaard, Soren. (2013), Kierkegaard's Writings, XVI: Works of Love, Princeton University Press, p. 94, ISBN 9781400847013
  18. ^ Marx, Karl. "Seven, Section 2". Das Kapital The Production of Surplus-Value — Der weg zur Hölle ist jedoch mit guten Absichten. One. Retrieved February 25, 2014.
  19. ^ Muir, John Kenneth (2011), Horror Films of the 1990s, McFarland, p. 236, ISBN 9780786440122
  20. ^ Madonna (Ft. Justin Timberlake & Timbaland) – 4 Minutes, retrieved 2017-07-20