“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

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This quote has been attributed to Samuel Johnson, John Ray and, perhaps earliest of all, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

Origin

This 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)”.

Meaning

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.

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.

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 his or her country and ends up with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Studies

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 behavior 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 behavior. 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.”

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_road_to_hell_is_paved_with_good_intentions

Samuel Johnson quotes: https://www.quotescosmos.com/people/Samuel-Johnson.html
John Ray quotes: https://www.quotescosmos.com/people/John-Ray.html
Bernard of Clairvaux quotes: https://www.quotescosmos.com/people/Bernard-of-Clairvaux.html

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