The road to hell is paved with good intentions

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"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]


A common meaning of the phrase is that wrongdoings or evil actions are often undertaken with good intentions; or that good intentions, when acted upon, may have unintended consequences.[2] An example is the introduction of invasive species, like Asian carp (bighead, black, grass, and silver carp) imported into the US in the 1970s as a method to control nuisance algal blooms in wastewater treatment plants and aquaculture ponds as well as for human food. Unfortunately, within ten years, the carp escaped confinement and spread to the waters of the Mississippi River basin and other large rivers like the Missouri and Illinois.[3]

A different interpretation of the saying is that individuals may have the intention to undertake good actions but nevertheless fail to take them.[4][5] This inaction may be due to procrastination, laziness, or another subversive vice.[6] As such, the saying is an admonishment that a good intention is meaningless unless followed through.[7] This is consistent with another saying, "the only thing necessary for evil to win is for good men to do nothing."


The exact origin of this proverb is unknown and several variations exist. The first full version of the phrase appeared in a London newspaper in 1828 where it was referred to as a Portuguese proverb.[8]

The earliest known text resembling this phrase occurs in Virgil's Aeneid: "facilis descensus Averno (the descent to hell is easy)".[9] A resemblance can be found in Ecclesiasticus 21:10, "The way of sinners is made plain with stones, but at the end thereof is the pit of hell."[10] Another resemblance also can be found in one Hadith that Muhammad said: "Paradise is surrounded by hardships, and the Fire is surrounded by desires."[11] The proverb is commonly misattributed to Bernard of Clairvaux who supposedly wrote (c. 1150), "L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs" (hell is full of good wishes or desires).[12] This citation was made in 1640, some five hundred years after his death, and this text has not been found in any of his published works.[citation needed] John Wesley referenced the proverb in his sermon titled, “The Almost Christian,” in 1741: “‘Hell is paved,’ saith one, ‘with good intentions.’”[13] John Foxe quotes William Tyndale (1494–1536) as writing "Beware of good intents." The second part of "Chapter 213" of Acts and Monuments cites "Fol. 87" of "The Wicked Mammon".[citation needed]

An 1811 English version of one of Rambach's books includes, "The road to hell is paved with good resolutions", a translation of his 1730 German text Der Weg zur Höllen sey mit lauter gutem Vorsatz gepflastert.[14][15] James Boswell's 1791 biography of Samuel Johnson quotes Johnson as saying to an acquaintance in 1775 "Sir, hell is paved with good intentions."[16] An earlier iteration "borrowed of" another language was "Hell is full of good meanings and wishes" and was published in 1670 in A Collection of English Proverbs collected by John Ray.[17] It was also published in Henry G. Bohn's A Hand-book of Proverbs in 1855.[18]


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.[19] Perfectionists are especially prone to having their intentions backfire in this way.[20] A 2004 study argued that people are more likely to interpret their own actions as more well-intended than the actions of others.[21]

Attempts to improve the ethical behaviour of groups are often counterproductive. If legislation is used for such an attempt, people observe the letter of the law rather than improve the desired behaviour. The threat of punishment may make behavior less rather than more ethical.[22] 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.[23]

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."[24]

Artistic references[edit]

Authors who have used the phrase include Charlotte Brontë, Lord Byron, Randy Travis, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott,[25] Søren Kierkegaard,[26] and Karl Marx.[27] Ozzy Osbourne used the term in the song "Tonight" on his album Diary of a Madman. Five Finger Death Punch used the term on their song "Living The Dream" for their 8th studio album released in 2020 F8

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.[28] The figurative meaning of the phrase is a big part of the plot too, as several characters offer to help the two protagonists on the Road to Hell, but all of them have ulterior motives.

In the Discworld novel Eric by Terry Pratchett, as the wizard Rincewind and teenaged demonologist Eric Thursley escape Pandemonium, they notice that the individual cobbles on the Road to Hell have good intentions written on them. These included "for the good of the kids", "I meant it for the best" and "we are equal opportunities employers".

Ms. Lauryn Hill used the phrase "See the road to hell is paved with good intentions" in her 2002 song "Mr. Intentional" from her album MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.

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.[29]

Post hardcore band In Fear and Faith has a song titled “The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions” featuring Craig Owens of Chiodos on their 2009 album Your World on Fire. [30]

Bruce Dickinson used this phrase in the song "Road to Hell", from the album Accident of Birth. [31]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions", Proverbs, Infobase Publishing, 2007, p. 234, ISBN 9780816066735
  2. ^ Callaway, Rhonda L. (August 2001). "Is the Road to Hell Paved with Good Intentions? The Effect of U.S. Foreign Assistance and Economic Policy on Human Rights". UNT Digital Library. Retrieved 2021-03-24.
  3. ^ Kalman, Izzy (August 16, 2010), "Principle Number One: The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions", Psychology Today, Resilience to Bullying
  4. ^ The road to hell is paved with good intentions (Third ed.). Mifflin Company. 2005. Retrieved March 28, 2013. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  5. ^ The road to hell is paved with good intentions (Third ed.). University Press. 2008. Retrieved March 28, 2013. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  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.; Burstein, Alvin George, eds. (1983). Psychosocial Basis of Health Care. Williams & Wilkins. p. 98. ISBN 0-683-00993-1.
  8. ^ "2 Nov 1828, 1 - The Weekly Dispatch at". Retrieved 2022-04-11.
  9. ^ Mawr, Mrs E. B. (1885), "Hell is paved with good intentions", Analogous Proverbs In Ten Languages, Elliot Stock
  10. ^ King James Bible
  11. ^ Elias, Abu Amina (2010-09-16). "Hadith on Hereafter: Paradise surrounded by hardship, Hellfire by desires". Retrieved 2023-12-01.
  12. ^ Ammer, Christine (1997), The American Heritage dictionary of idioms, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 9780395727744
  13. ^ "Sermon 'The Almost Christian'". WordsOfWesley. Retrieved 2023-08-13.
  14. ^ Meditations and Contemplations on the Sufferings of Our Lord and ..., p. 61, at Google Books
  15. ^ "Johann Jacob Rambachs, Der Heil. Schrift Prof. Ord. in Halle Betrachtungen über das gantze Leiden Christi, Jm Oelgarten, vor dem geistlichen Gericht der Jüden, vor dem weltlichen Gericht Pilati und Herodis, und auf dem Berge Golgatha : Nach der Harmonischen Beschreibung der vier Evangelisten abgehandelt. Vormals eintzeln, itzt zusammen herausgegeben, Auch mit einigen Kupfern gezieret, und mit nöthigen Registern versehen". University of Halle. 1730. Retrieved 2022-03-05.
  16. ^ Boswell, James (1791). Life of Samuel Johnson. Vol. II.
  17. ^ Ray, John (1670), A Collection of English Proverbs
  18. ^ Bohn, Henry (1855), A Hand-book of Proverbs
  19. ^ Gollwitzer, Peter; Sheeran, Paschal (2006-05-30), "Implementation intentions and goal achievement", Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 38, Elsevier, ISBN 9780120152384
  20. ^ 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, PMID 15951362, S2CID 1623026
  21. ^ 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, S2CID 40554213
  22. ^ Messick, David (2006-07-11), "The Road to Hell", Ethics in groups, vol. 8, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 273–274, ISBN 9780762313006
  23. ^ Nash, Laura L. (1993), Good intentions aside: a manager's guide to resolving ethical problems, Harvard Business School Press, ISBN 9780875844299
  24. ^ Post, Stephen Garrard (2002), Altruism & altruistic love, Oxford University Press, p. 203, ISBN 9780195143584
  25. ^ Pell, Robert Conger (1857), Milledulcia, p. 89
  26. ^ Kierkegaard, Soren. (2013), Kierkegaard's Writings, XVI: Works of Love, Princeton University Press, p. 94, ISBN 9781400847013
  27. ^ Marx, Karl. "Seven, Section 2". Das Kapital The Production of Surplus-Value — Der weg zur Hölle ist jedoch mit guten Absichten. Vol. One. Retrieved February 25, 2014.
  28. ^ Muir, John Kenneth (2011), Horror Films of the 1990s, McFarland, p. 236, ISBN 9780786440122
  29. ^ Madonna (Ft. Justin Timberlake & Timbaland) – 4 Minutes, retrieved 2017-07-20
  30. ^ The Road to Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions by In Fear and Faith, retrieved 2024-02-06
  31. ^ Bruce Dickinson - Road to Hell, retrieved 2021-07-02