The road to hell is paved with good intentions
The exact origin of this proverb is unknown and its form has evolved over time. The modern expression, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions", was first published in Henry G. Bohn's A Hand-book of Proverbs in 1855. An earlier iteration, "Hell is full of good meanings and wishes", was published in 1670 in A Collection of English Proverbs collected by John Ray.
A biblical 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." 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). 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.
A common 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 that wrongdoings or evil actions are often undertaken with good intentions; or that good intentions, when acted upon, may have unintended consequences. An example is the introduction of invasive species, like the Asian carp introduced into the US, which has become a nuisance due to unexpected proliferation and behaviour.
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, Randy Travis, 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 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 on 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".
The phrase is also used by Lauryn Hill in Mr. Intentional
The phrase is also used in the 2020 "Living the Dream" by Five Finger Death Punch on their F8 album.
A similar phrase, "our best intentions pave the way to hell", was used in 2013 film Romeo & Juliet by Mercutio after he was stabbed by Tybalt.
This phrase was used in Jurassic Park 3 when Billy steals the raptor eggs to fund his University Department.
The phrase was alluded to in both the title and lyrical poetry in Joanna Newsom's track "Good Intentions Paving Co." on the 2010 album Have One on Me.
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- Bohn, Henry (1855), A Hand-book of Proverbs
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- King James Bible
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