April 3, 2006

Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions.

I came across this very nice quote while looking at "In Defense of Globalization" by Jagdish Bhagwati.
Road to hell is paved with good intentions.

(This expression has been in use for hundreds of years and is often wrongly attributed (apparently) to Samuel Johnson.)

It is possible to imagine the context in which Bhagwati uses this.

Causing harm to the poor countries cannot have been the intention of Oxfam [a British NGO], yet the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Oxfam knows a little, but not enough, about trade policy, I am afraid, and I have been moved to remark, not just in this instance, that mission creep, even by non-creeps, is often not a good idea. Their overreach subtracts from the great good that they have done when they concentrate on what they do best.

I am sure he goes on to present arguments for his comments later in the book. But I am generally wary of such beautifully pithy expressions because they have the the potential of convincing the reader without providing any evidence. In this instance, the author is making very strong statements about Oxfam and it is essential that ample evidence is provided to justify those statements. Even if one proves that road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, it does not follow that good intentions of Oxfam lead to hell. For, A implies B does not mean B implies A. In other words, even if road to hell is paved with good intentions, not all roads paved with good intentions lead to hell.

Let me stress again that I am not saying that no evidence is provided. This statement is made in the first chapter and I am pretty sure he goes on to explain later on in the book. I only made some general comments here.


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