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The idiom "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" conveys [at least] the idea that merely having good intentions is insufficient; one must also take action to realize those intentions. As stated by the Cambridge Dictionary

  • the road to hell is paved with good intentions [idiom ... saying]

    said to emphasize that you must not simply intend to behave well but you must act according to your intentions, because you will have problems or be punished if you do not

and the Oxford Dictionary of English, this idiom emphasizes the importance of not only intending to behave well but also acting in accordance with those intentions, as failure to do so may result in negative consequences or punishment.

However, according to Wikipedia, there is also an alternative interpretation. It pertains to the discrepancy that may exist between the intended outcomes of one's well-intended actions and the actual outcomes:

  • the road to hell is paved with good intentions [proverb/aphorism] ...

A common meaning of the phrase 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 Asian carp into the United States in the 1970s to control algal blooms in captivity. Within ten years, the carp escaped and spread throughout the Mississippi River System

What is the usual usage of this idiom?

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    This is more of a proverb than an idiom. I think your second paragraph is the more common use, but I don't know how anyone would prove one way or the other.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jul 10 at 23:44
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    There are other phrases that are used for the first meaning, like "he's all talk, no action", "put your money where your mouth is", or "there is no try, only do" (from Yoda).
    – Barmar
    Commented Jul 10 at 23:45
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    Your conclusion #2 is not quite distinct from #1. I'd say #1 means "Good intentions without appropriate actions = no positive outcomes." And #2 means "Good intentions even with appropriate actions may not always produce good outcomes." Example: Thanks but no thanks for interfering. Commented Jul 11 at 0:17
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    “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” (1936) is the foundational academic article. See Wikipedia on “Unintended Consequences.”
    – Xanne
    Commented Jul 11 at 7:02
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    That saying is never followed up with 'But let me see what I can do.' It's just a rationalization, by and large, with eternal damnation as its excuse. Scary. Let's just sit and click on some emojis or something till this all blows over… Commented Jul 11 at 9:00

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The following link shows use of the saying over centuries. The import is that good intentions can lead to hellish outcomes. Claiming that you meant well is no excuse.

Google Books Link

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  • I don't see how this distinguishes the senses mentioned. Commented Jul 12 at 23:39
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    @edwinashworth I believe this does distinguish them. The first sense assumes that good intentions will lead to good outcomes if properly acted upon, and that the problem lies in the failure to follow through on those good intentions. The second sense suggests that good intentions don’t guarantee good outcomes, and that people who commit evil deeds in many cases would have honestly claimed to have been acting on good intentions. In other words, the existence of genuinely felt good intentions does not preclude harmful or evil outcomes; evildoers don’t see themselves as the villains.
    – zunojeef
    Commented Jul 13 at 7:11
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    @zunojeef The difference in meanings (were the good intentions acted upon or not?) is not even mentioned, far less which is the prevailing sense nowadays. Commented Jul 13 at 11:15
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    I agree with (what is implied in) in this answer and stated in several of the comments above: that the second of the two interpretations is the meaning of the proverb. It is noteworthy that nobody here has so far come in defence of the first one (as the dominant one). However, given that this goes against the authority of the Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries, one would like to see more of an argument in favour of the second interpretation and against the first one.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jul 13 at 16:02

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