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The saying is thought to have originated with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote (c. 1150), "L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs" (hell is full of good wishes and desires). An earlier saying occurs in Virgil's Aeneid: "facilis descensus Averno (It is easy to go to hell)".
One 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, which is notoriously difficult for common good intentions such as losing weight through dieting or quitting smoking.
A different interpretation of the saying is that good intentions, when acted upon, may have unforeseen bad consequences. An example is the introduction of alien species such as the Asian carp, 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 have their intentions backfire in this way. When judging intentions, people are more likely to interpret good intentions for their own actions than they are for those of others.
Attempts to improve the ethical behaviour of groups are often counter-productive. If legislation is used then people will observe the letter of the law rather than improving the desired behaviour. During negotiation, groups that are encouraged to understand the point of view of the other parties do worse than those whose perspective is not enlightened. The threat of punishment may worsen ethical behaviour rather than improve it. 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."
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 phrase is also used as the title for a song by Metalcore band In Fear and Faith.
A version of the phrase is used in the song "Road to Hell" by Bruce Dickinson.
The phrase is used by Benjamin Sisko in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode In the Pale Moonlight regarding his actions in "tricking" the Romulan Empire to join the United Federation of Planets in war against the Dominion.
The phrase was also used as the title of the 2009 film 'Hell's Pavement' (Dir. Andy Kemp) in which the good intentions of a social care system critically failed to meet the needs of a child in foster care. The film won three international awards including the coveted 'People's Choice' award at the 2010 Beloit International Film Festival.
The phrase "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" appears in the song, Mr. Intentional by Lauryn Hill (MTV unplugged 2.0) on her second album released in 2002