The road to hell is paved with good intentions
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). An earlier saying occurs in Virgil's Aeneid: "facilis descensus Averno (the descent to hell is easy)".
One meaning of the phrase is that individuals may have the intention to undertake good actions but nevertheless fail to take action. This inaction may be due to procrastination, laziness or other subversive vice. As such, the saying is an admonishment that a good intention is meaningless unless followed through.
A different interpretation of the saying is wrongdoings or evil actions are often masked by good intentions, or even that good intentions, when acted upon, may have unforeseen bad consequences. An example is the introduction of alien species such as the Asian carp, which has become a nuisance due to unexpected proliferation and behaviour.
A third interpretation: Moral certainty can justify the harm done by failing policies and actions. Those with good intentions believe their practices are good for the group, they do not stop to think, or find, whether that's actually the case. It is self-evident to them. So they justify collateral damage in the belief they do a greater good. E.g.1. a communist apparatchik may send dissenters to the Gulag because the apparatchik "knows" it is best for the future of society, for 'socialism'. E.g.2. the Inquisition torture and kill heretics because they believe it is good for everyone else (and perhaps even good for their victims), for the 'good Christian' life and state. This is different from the second interpretation (above) because the harm done is clearly seen, and acknowledged, but is written off as a 'price worth paying'.
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. Perfectionists are especially prone to have their intentions backfire in this way. Some have argued, that when judging intentions, people are more likely to interpret their own actions as well intended, than they would if judging the actions of others.
Attempts to improve the ethical behaviour of groups are often counter-productive. If legislation is used then people will observe the letter of the law rather than improving the desired behaviour. During negotiation, groups that are encouraged to understand the point of view of the other parties do worse than those whose perspective is not enlightened. The threat of punishment may worsen ethical behaviour rather than improve it. 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.
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."
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. 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.
In the movie X-Men, when Senator Kelly tells Magneto that his intentions were good, the latter angrily replies that he is "quite aware of the road to Hell and what it's paved with!"
The phrase is used as the title for a song by Metalcore band In Fear and Faith.
A version of the phrase is used in the song "Road to Hell" by Bruce Dickinson.
The phrase is used by Benjamin Sisko in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "In the Pale Moonlight" regarding his actions in "tricking" the Romulan Empire to join the United Federation of Planets in war against the Dominion.
The phrase was used in the infamous children's book "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle, which shaped the lives of many a child.
The phrase was used as the title of the 2009 film Hell's Pavement (Dir. Andy Kemp) in which the good intentions of a social care system critically failed to meet the needs of a child in foster care. The film won three international awards including the coveted 'People's Choice' award at the 2010 Beloit International Film Festival.
The phrase "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" appears in the song "Mr. Intentional" by Lauryn Hill on her second album, released in 2002.
A parody of the phrase appears in the song "Hum Hallelujah" by Fall Out Boy.
The computer game Skullgirls has a theme named Paved with Good Intentions.
Ki Swan from Video Game High School (VGHS) uses the phrase.
This phrase is quoted almost word for word by Mr. Heartland in an episode of Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal to explain his justification for orchestrating attacks on the Astral World.
The phrase also appears in the song "Good Intentions" by The Chainsmokers.
The phrase was quoted in the TV series Smallville, in the final episode of the first season, by Clark's father, referring to Lex's real intentions.
The phrase is quoted by author Garry Kasparov in his book Winter is Coming as "If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, compromises on principles are the streetlights"
The phrase is quoted by Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) in Grey's Anatomy, Season 2, Episode 23: "Blues For Sister Someone" 2006.
The entire AMC series Breaking Bad is based on the title character Walter White, trying to do the right thing for his family when he finds out he has cancer. He wants to leave money to help them after he dies, and resorts to making meth. During the series the viewer sees good intentions slowly turn him into a form of the devil.
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