The road to hell is paved with good intentions

Discussion in 'English Only' started by macta123, Mar 17, 2006.

  1. macta123 Senior Member


    What does this proverb/phrase means? :

    The road to hell is paved with good intention
  2. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    Hello Macta,
    First, it is good intentions, plural.
    It is a saying that means---good intentions are worthless unless there are actions to accompany them. Another way to say it--Wanting will not make it so.

    The idea is that one's desires, intentions, hopes, etc. do not accomplish anything good, unless one takes action.

  3. ewhite

    ewhite Senior Member

    And the actions must be moral, or good, ones, or the "good intentions" can lead to evil results.
  4. DaleC Senior Member

    "Robert Wilson, in the newsgroup alt.quotations, provided two other sources prior to Johnson. John Ray, in 1670, cited as a proverb "Hell is paved with good intentions." Even earlier than that, it's been attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), as "Hell is full of good intentions or desires." Just how it got to the road to Hell being paved this way, and not Hell itself, I don't know." source
  5. COLsass

    COLsass Senior Member

    You have to keep in mind that this phrase gets said in situations like this:

    I'm so sorry, I meant to help that sick woman, I really wanted to, I swear! I just didn't find the time.

    Response: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    Just because you want to do good doesn't mean a damn thing unless you do the good you intended to do. Instead you didn't do it and ended up doing something bad as a result, i.e. not helping. Thus you are on your way to hell, sinner.
  6. Genecks

    Genecks Senior Member

    Chicago, USA
    American English
    I hear and read this idiom, but while still being American and Christian, I just don't get it.

    What does it mean?
  7. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    It means that many atrocities and misdeeds (the road to hell) have been committed with the best of intentions. Think of all the religious wars of the world over time - people with the best of intentions have done atrocious things and believe in their heart of hearts that they are doing it for all the right reasons. Accordingly, they commit terrible acts which could well lead them to hell but the road to hell is paved with what they believe to be the best of intentions.
  8. Genecks

    Genecks Senior Member

    Chicago, USA
    American English
    I understand now. Thank you.
  9. . 1 Banned

    Ferntree Gully
    Australian Australia
    Jeeze are there some variants possible.

    The road to hell only exists becaused of failed good intentions.

    If you don't follow through on a good intention you will go to hell.

    It is impossible to successfully complete a good intention.

    Good intentions are the work of the devil.

    Any attempt to change human nature is doomed.

    The only thing trying to change human nature is the devil.

    Interfering busy-bodies go to hell.

    God is non interventionist.

    The devil is interventionist.

    The devil doesn't need to be interventionist because intervention is doomed.

    The devil must be interventionist because intervention is doomed.

    Bad intentions don't lead to hell.

    Bad intentions are not doomed.

    Bad intentions are possible.

    Bad intentions don't exist.

    Bad intentions have a good result.

    Good intentions have a bad result.

    Bad intentions are logically impossible.

    Good intentions are morally reprehensible.

    Bad intentions are morally superior.

    Hell takes all comers.

    Read the fine print, cut the cards and the gun is always loaded.

  10. X51 New Member

    Hi Guys,

    All interesting responses. I have my own interpretation for you all to consider:

    The word INTENTION, i think is the key component in understanding this phrase. Its general meaning is

    "an act or instance of determining mentally upon some action or result."

    I believe a person commits an act believing it is in fact a good deed, i.e 'his good intention'. The result however, or the action viewed from an external perspective may be in fact a bad one.

    The classical example of:

    "I only stole the bread to feed my children"

    Although some may consider a good deed to feed the children, stealing is not.

    If we 'extrematize' the above and say for example:

    "I killed the man, so I could take his money to feed my children"

    is quite certainly believed by most as it being in fact a bad deed.

    Therefore, the killers good intentions as a whole was bad, and therefore, the killers road to hell has this 'action' paved in to the road as a bad intention disguised as a good one, possibly amongst many others.

    So to sum it up; someone does something bad, justifying usually to himself and those that are effected by his action that it was a good deed, when it really was not.

    So when can you use it? Example:

    Someone does something bad to you, and they are sitting their making up excuses and explanations as to why their action was done with good intention to help you, when in fact it didn't help at all.

    And then, you turn around and say the magic words. :)

    To tie my definitions in with definitions given above by others
    , I recall another phrase:

    "All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing" - I could be one or two words of, but you get the picture.

    Hope that made sense! would love to hear your responses.
  11. ahmedmin New Member

    I am using this phrase as a nickname in my msngr. Anyway what I want to say is that this phrase means when someone does something bad and covers it with good intententions.
    So the reason is good but the act is bad.
    I hope you understand my poor English. Finally, I can say it like that,I want to do something bad but I make it look like good.

    Last edited: Aug 6, 2008
  12. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Hello, Ahmed, and welcome to the forums:)

    I think you mean that the phrase is used in those circumstances.

    I'd say that's exactly right:
    A: I did it with the best of intentions - I didn't know it would hurt her.
    B: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
  13. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    (The road to) hell is paved with good intentions.
    However it began, and there are examples from 1574 onwards (source), this expression seems to have several slightly different meanings and usage.

    1. You meant to do something good, but did nothing.

    2. You meant to do something good, but what you did had a bad effect.

    3. You meant to achieve something good, but did really bad things, justifying them by the supposed good ends.

    I think that ahmedmin is suggesting it could mean:

    4. You mean to do something bad, but you construct good reasons for it - you pave it with good intentions.
  14. ahmedmin New Member

    hi again ,,

    thanx Panjandrum, this is what i realy meant .

    "to achieve something good, but did really bad things, justifying them by the supposed good ends".

    As there is an old Say : " the end justifies the means" .

  15. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    Hi Ahmed and welcome to WordReference. :)

    "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" means that the person wanted (intended) to do something "good" but it didn't work out that way, as in Panj's first three sentences. I have never heard it used to mean "the end justifies the means".
  16. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod

    I agree with Nun-Translator. The first three meanings that Panjandrum gave are all familiar to me. The fourth is not.
  17. flyinroom New Member

    english - canada
    Well now, let's see.
    My understanding has always been that, good intentions have no value unless followed up with concrete actions. Something along the same lines as "Talk is cheap.".
  18. djmc Senior Member

    English - United Kingdom
    I think the force of the proverb is that it can have two meanings. Either that although one means well one does nothing. One passes on the other side of the rod when one sees someone injured or in need, rather than giving assistance. The parable of the good Samaritan would come to mind here; or that full of evangelical enthusiasm one might slay the enemy, the infidel for what may seem the best of reasons as with many of the genocides of history. It often seems to me that misguided idealism is responsible for greater evil than straightforward and self-aware malevolence.
  19. pwmeek

    pwmeek Senior Member

    SE Michigan, USA
    English - American
    I have always read this proverb as: "Good intentions frequently result in destructive outcomes." Or: "The things people do while intending to do good, often hurt other people."

    EDIT: Or djmc's second interpretation, which I like better.
  20. kalamazoo Senior Member

    US, English
    I agree with Nunty and Panj as to the meaning. I don't think it has anything to do with covering up or pretending to have good intentions. it means that your intentions were good but either you failed to carry them out, or you did carry them out but they resulted in a bad outcome that you didnt expect.
  21. MikeLynn

    MikeLynn Senior Member

    Does "No good deed goes unpunished." have the same meaning? It does sound similar, if not identical, to me. Thanks
  22. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod

    No, it has a very different meaning. It means "I tried to do something good and I received punishment in return." It can also be used as a warning when someone announces an intention to do something altruistic or beneficial for others.
  23. MikeLynn

    MikeLynn Senior Member

    Thank you, JamesM for your explanation; however, I'm afraid that my understanding is quite close to kalamazoo's definition in bold:
    In other words, Your intention was good, but unfortunately, because of something you didn't foresee or predict, it happened to end up to be a "disaster".
  24. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod

    But that's speaking about the effects of your actions, not the reactions of others to your efforts. "No good deed goes unpunished" does not include any sense that what you did turned out wrong. You succeeded in accomplishing your intentions but the reaction of others was unexpectedly negative. Rather than rewarding you for doing something good, they punished you.

    They are not the same.

    An example of "no good deed goes unpunished" would be that you find a wallet on the street with lots of money in it, track down the owner and return it and he/she calls the police on you for stalking him/her. Your intention and your action were both good but the person rewarded that good action with evil.

    On a separate note, to me, "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions" means that you had good thoughts or intentions but you never carried them out. I don't have any personal experience of it having the second meaning, although I can understand it being used in that way. When it was said to me as a child it was usually in response to my saying "I meant/was planning to clean my room / tell the teacher what happened / get my homework done / return the toy". The idea was that a good intention in itself means nothing.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2012
  25. pwmeek

    pwmeek Senior Member

    SE Michigan, USA
    English - American
    "No good deed goes unpunished" is a wry observation about the apparent unfairness of fate. This is quite different than the OP's aphorism.
  26. MikeLynn

    MikeLynn Senior Member

    Thank you, JamesM and pwmeek for your posts. I'm afraid that my problem is that, although we have almost the same thing in Czech; they must have been borrowed from Latin, Greek?; they mean basically the same thing-you do something, trying to help, to do something honest, decent or something that should be appreciated, and the result simply backfires on you. :(
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2012
  27. Kousik New Member

    My initial understanding on this proverb was "any or all the uncoordinated efforts with good intentions would eventually lead to hell". Every individual good intended effort is good in itself but failed to produce the desired outcome at the larger picture.

    This statement could be very true if you could reference this proverb at any chaos.

    Similar proverb could be "too may cooks spoil the broth"

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