The road to hell is paved with good intentions

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This article is about the proverb/aphorism. For the 2009 song by In Fear and Faith, see The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions (song).

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions is a proverb or aphorism. Another saying is The road to Heaven Is Knowledge of The Lord And Saviour, Jesus. 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]


One meaning of the phrase is that individuals may have the intention to undertake good actions but nevertheless fail to take action.[4][5] This inaction may be due to procrastination, laziness or other subversive vice.[6] As such, the saying is an admonishment that a good intention is meaningless unless followed through.[7]

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.[8]

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'.

A fourth interpretation and perhaps the one most literal: 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 subjectively good of his or her country and ends up with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.


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 have their intentions backfire in this way.[10] Some[11] 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.[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]

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.

See also[edit]


  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. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus (Third ed.). University Press. 2008. Retrieved March 28, 2013. 
  6. ^ 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 
  7. ^ Bowden, Charles L., editor; Burstein, Alvin George, editor (1983). Psychosocial Basis of Health Care. Williams & Wilkins. p. 98. ISBN 0-683-00993-1. 
  8. ^ Kalman, Izzy (August 16, 2010), "Principle Number One: The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions", Psychology Today, Resilience to Bullying 
  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