Mon 18 Nov, 2002 05:06 am
"Hell is paved with good intentions."
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
Recently, I recalled a phrase I had heard as a child. It was simply the phrase "Hell is paved with good intentions" I took it at face value; believing that intending to do the right thing is worthless if you don't succeed. In later years, I probably have used the phrase on several occasions myself. As I drove along I played with the phrase in my mind. And, at some point asked myself the question "How on earth could that be true in any situation?"
What a faulty logic to teach a child. In the thoughts that I've had of hell, I assumed that the road there was paved by bad intentions and evil deeds. As I see or feel the concept of good intentions, I envision an individual or group on individuals acting in a way that they believe will bring to others a sense of joy, relief and, excitement. Good intentions, by the virtue of the phrases content, are positive intentions. Thus, why would the road to hell be paved with ideas and thoughts that were intended to improve the quality of life for someone else, if even for a second or two?
The world could provide us with a litany of good intentions that went astray. The compliment that once spoken was anything but good. Acts committed that had at the time of inception had been intended to assist or help but turned out to be exactly the wrong action. Looking into a bassinette and saying, "That's a beautiful girl", only to be told that it is a boy. The architectural strength and stability of the World Trade Center. They were all faulty in their inception but nonetheless all were good in their intention.
In anticipation of the responses, "What about Hitler?" I would submit that there is a great deal separation between the pure "Good Intention" and those acts that are committed while wearing the facade of "Good Intentions". Those people who act in a manner designed to bring pleasure and wealth to themselves with little consideration of others.
Good intentions are the loom upon which fabric of our society was founded and it continues to hold the material taut as our society grows and expands. Beyond the missed stitch here and there, this fabric still wraps us warmly and securely with the thought that our good intentions, in the end, will bring us joy and a sense of fulfillment. In the end, these thoughts and deeds will pave a road that will guide us to that higher-level of the eternal spirit, rest and peace.
Maybe the "good intentions" were never undertook.I think of an intention as something one intends to do,not something that HAS been done.
Was Johnson thinking along those lines perhaps?
Welcome. Though I don't necessarily agree with the direction of your essay, I hope to see more of your writing. The site needs more short prose.
I don't think i can agree. Good intentions are no substitute for reliable participation in the social contract. Intending to drive well will not provide adequate excuse for having caused an accident. Society is "stitched" together--i would say woven--with a warp of self-interest (cooperating with other to gain personal advantage) and a woof of fear (fear of social censure, fear of the awful majesty of the law, fear of the consequences of being outcast). I am a cynic--and i am also optomistic about the future of the human race. If this seems contradictory, then i urge you to study human nature. It is not only possible for someone to hold two apparently contradictory notions, it is very likely done by everyone all the time.
I think it depends on whose good intentions one follows. Depending upon the age of a child or any person the ability to decern good is difficult. In fact the reasons Baptists don't have sex is that it may lead to dancing.
Sentena, The intention to drive well and not succeeding has a consequence attached to it. I would not assume that it would make the result justifiable. Intending to drive well while intoxicated is quite another thing That has no real positive, productive or good intention.
I can live with your seemingly controdictory outlooks. There is a fact that everyone always does what they think is in their best interest at the moment. That does not imply that each of us are self-centered. You made your post and I replied because we both felt that it was in our interest to have others understand our views. I would also hate to fear that people act within the constaints of laws, rules and regulations simply because of the fear of legal reprocussions. I obey most laws because it is in my best interest to do so. I also step beyond many of these limitations for whatever reason that comes to me. I am willing to suffer the consequences but I refuse to live in fear of these mandates.
Thank you for your suggestion that I try observing human nature. I have and do. As a psychologist, it is sort of a job trait!
Thanks for your response.
Hi Morganwood! Great to see you here.
I've always seen that phrase as referring to good intentions not being enough. Good intentions, in and of themselves, are usually referred to when the good ACTION did not take place. The mother wanted to potty train the child -- a good intention -- but did so by shaming him. The husband wanted to bring money home to his wife -- a good intention -- but attempted to do so by blowing his paycheck on blackjack. If the mother successfully potty trained her son, or the husband successfully brought home a fat wad of cash to his wife, the intentions wouldn't come into it -- it would be a good action.
Well, Boss, i would hope, given the insights you must have accumulated, that you would understand that i'm describing the social contract's self-enforcement aspect in terms of reduction--what is it, at the very least, which motivates people to participate in the contract. I understand that many people obey the law because of a belief in obedience, others because of ideals of a personal ethos, still others do so thoughtlessly--simply because they were raised to do so, and have never given a thought to not doing so. I also understand that a concept of a social contract is not something to which everyone has given consideration, and that a good many people are motivated to curb their appetites and inclination for the simple reason that they anticipate damage to their self-interest a consequence of not doing so. I further understand that many people were unfortunate enough to have been raised so poorly that they could not read and understand what it is that we write here, and that their concepts of a place in society and social responsibility, if such exist in them at all, are amorphous at best, and likely trouble them little. Most of those fitting such a description are likely, at one time or another in their lives, to be described as criminals.
I used to work in a bar (any job is better than no job) which was frequented by a young man who had recently gotten out of prison for having severely beaten a man. As one might well imagine, he was in very good physical condition, having had shelter and regular meals for several years, and he prided himself on his physique, so he had done weight training while incarcerated. He seemed to enjoy retailing his recent history, probably because he anticipated fear on the part of his interlocutors. When i was once confronted by an arrogant and annoying fraternity member (this bar was at one end of frat row at a major mid-western university), with whom i had had many unpleasant encounters in the past--i responded by verbally humiliating this young man. He deserved such treatmen given the way he habitually spoke to others, and i sincerely hoped it would discourage him from entering the bar while i was present. The young ex-con was at the bar. A few minutes after the frat boy left, he informed me that if he were not on parole, he'd beat the hell out of me. I'm fool enough that threats don't frighten me, they just make me angry, so he was not getting the response for which he always hoped when attempting conversation in the bar. (I also think he came there because "you college boys think you're so smart" was a favorite ice-breaker of his.) When i asked him what the hell his problem was, he responded that somebody should beat me senseless because of the way i had just spoken to the young man. Not because i has spoken to him in such a manner, because i had spoken to anyone that way.
Although it is obvious that this young, former convict had serious problems in controling his temper, another aspect is significant to me. That is that a misguided notion of how others should behave, combined with a secret superhero fantasy of his (i'm speculating of course--mostly just trying to convey how he like to protray himself), had lead him into savage violence, for which society had punished him. Without going into further examples, this is the most extreme example which i have run across in my life of good intentions gone horribly wrong. Even though others at the bar tried to convince this young man that the frat boy had "had it coming" in terms of a verbal dressing down, this young man felt an almost overpowering need to strike out at anything he considered injustice in his immediate world. The awful majesty of the law was the only restraint he acknowledged, and he felt the greatest injustice of his life was in having been punished, and now being restrained from acting on his good intentions.
My example of good intentions with regard to driving may have been lame, i'll not dispute that. I continue, however, to be unimpressed by what people intend--it's too easy to make oneself out to have been well-intentioned after something has gone wrong; it is equally facile to contend that there is or ever will be a set of behaviors, the aspiration to which justify or mitigate the actions of an individual. The consented upon regulations of society offer the only basis for governing the passions which would otherwise leave us all ungovernable. All of which is, of course, in my never-humble opinion.
And by the way, i did not enjoin you to study human nature based upon a presumption of your ignorance in that area--that was a suggestion qualified by my statement about being both cynical and optomistic about the human race. Had you found such contradition incomprehensible, then your knowledge of human nature would be suspect. As you imply a good, working knowledge of human nature, than such an injunction is meaningless.
"Hell is full of good intentions or desires."
.... Saint Bernard 1091-1153
"Hell is full of good meanings and wishings."
.... George Herbert Jacula Prudentum 
"Hell is paved with good intentions."
.... Ray English Proverbs 
Quoted by Samuel Johnson 
"Hell is paved with good intentions, not with bad ones."
.... Shaw Maxims for Revolutionists
"Hell is volition at the level of velleity."
.... Debacle 
".... and enterprises of great pith and moment (i.e. volition)
... their currents turn awry and lose the name of action (i.e. velleity)" .... Hamlet
Interesting first post, morganwood. As usual, i do enjoy it when you share your thoughts and writing. It invariably makes me think (are you trying to make that happen? :wink: )
When i reflect on 'hell being paved with good intentions', i think of it as being a traditional variation on the current 'walking the talk'. It's all well and good to say that you intend to do good things, but if you don't follow through it's worthless. I suspect ( not being any kind of historian, i don't know - and don't intend to research ) that at one point in time, it was felt that saying you meant to do good and then not following through was worse than not saying that you intended to do good. Which of course would lead you straight to hell. And truthfully, I feel that way now. Don't tell me you're going to behave in a certain way if you don't really intend to. Save your breath. I won't be disappointed if i wasn't expecting something good from you.
Ah, morganwood, you've done it again. Incidentally, I, too, love the avatar (what brand is that? hubby's been comparison shopping).
Okay, I think the problem is in intentions that are not enacted. For example, my intention was to buy a present for my son's birthday that would really please him. If I bought a present and he didn't like it, well then 'it's the thought that counts' and I get brownie points. If I simply didn't buy him a present at all, then I'm a rotten mother and I go to hell.
Even in the worst scenarios, I can see where, while the end result is 'bad', the good intentions could make it okay. For example, killing another person is definitely bad. But if that person was about to murder another person and I intervened with the intention of saving the victim, I don't necessarily think I would be condemned.
Now both of these examples are of intentions carried out. Which leaves me to believe that the original quote must be about those good intentions we have that we never act on. If one only THINKS about doing good things, but never DOES anything good, one can never earn enough brownie points.
So good to have you posting here, morganwood. Thanks for getting the brain working again.
Sometimes good decisions have bad results. Act on your good intentions and hope for the best. This is not the way to hell, so don't give up when a few don't work out.
Hi, Morganwood. Was hoping you'd show up around here one these times.
Didn't realize that I wouldn't get notice of postings. Sorry.
The first thing I have done is an edit of the piece. My intention was to simply address the thought that "Good Intentions" are not the tarmac on ther road to perdition. I had no intention of addressing extremes. The idea of "Don't tell me, show me" has some merit but, in that approach, it seems that one would would have a negative expectency of the result. I've intended to have lunch with a good friend for a monmth or so. Things have intervened or I have simply forgotten. When I said "Let's have lunch" I meant it and will, at some point, will. Now, that's a simplistic example but, is a reflection of what we intend and what we do. The ultimate act would be to act on all of our intentions in a timely manner. We don't. At best, we do have a "To DO' list in our mind and act upon the most important issues while often leaving items of lower priority undone or set aside. I am sorry that I see no good intention in either the parolee or the bartenders actions. I see the parolees action as a self serving expression of his physical prowess and the bartenders assertions as merely a ploy to put someone in their place. Beyond that, I sincerely hope that peoples actions are not universally guided by fear of punishment or public ridicule. If that were the case, a good number of posts to this forum would surely be stifled or watered down. Hell, comments concerning my spelling and refusal to spell check would surely keep me away.
I'm pleased, setting quality aside, that my post has generated some pleasant conversation. Thanks!
So ehBeth and I are on the same wavelength here.
Hey, thanks for your first post, morganwood. I hope it's the first of several--even many--thoughtful and prosaic (?) contributions to this forum. Yay!
You partly offered interesting thoughts (yay) and may have partly experimented with writing in essay form. If you want any feedback on the writing part--say so,--and I for one will comment more.
"Less is more" is my main thought about writing. <g>
I especially liked the fabric metaphor in the first two sentences of the last paragraph.
Hope we've all welcomed you sufficiently for you to want to write again. I look forward to more of your commentary/writing.
I miss Morganwood and the thoughts while mowing the lawn.
And also other, now missing folk, from this old 2002 thread.