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)".
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 of an invasive species, like the Asian carp, which has become a nuisance due to unexpected proliferation and behaviour.
Another 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.
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 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. Perfectionists are especially prone to having their intentions backfire in this way. Some 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. The threat of punishment may make behavior less rather than more ethical. 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."
Authors who have used the phrase include Charlotte Brontë, Lord Byron, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, Søren Kierkegaard, and Karl Marx. 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. 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.
Madonna uses this line in her 2008 single "4 Minutes," featuring Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, off her eleventh studio album Hard Candy. She mentions it in one of her verses, singing "The road to hell is paved with good intentions, yeah."
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