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The Meaning and Use of “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”

The utility of good deeds has been a trending topic for millennia. People have been expressing their opinions about it for as long as we can trace the history of human thought, worldview, and moral codes.

Valentina Dordevic
Valentina Dordevic

Some think this saying is funny. Others see it as a sad truth about humankind. And then, some completely disagree with it. Regardless of our opinion, one thing is certain: this expression is all about the speaker’s views.

The Origin of “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”

The utility of good deeds has been a trending topic for millennia. People have been expressing their opinions about it for as long as we can trace the history of human thought, worldview, and moral codes. There were some variations in the ancient past, but with the rise of Christianity, we got a classic truism: “No good deed goes unrewarded, and no bad deed goes unpunished.” Or, as Thomas Aquinas put it, “For as punishment is to the evil act, so is a reward to a good act. Now no evil deed is unpunished by God, the just judge. Therefore no good deed is unrewarded, and so every good deed merits some good.” (Summa Theologica)

In the 20th century, the rise of skepticism and a utilitarian approach to life brought us some different views, and the traditional saying was often ridiculed. That’s how “no good deed goes unpunished” emerged in several texts. It was attributed to Oscar Wilde, but it circulated for quite a while, so no one knows who invented it.

What Does “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” Mean?

The short answer is that this saying means that the speaker disagrees with Thomas Aquinas. But it doesn’t mean that there are no differences in attitudes of those who use the expression.

Some people use it to ridicule the ethic of monotheistic religions. When they say “no good deed goes unpunished,” they actually mean something like this: “Don’t be naive. There’s no God. The idea that you’ll be rewarded for good deeds and punished for evil ones is silly. I can make fun of it, and no one will ever punish me for being cynical.”

Others who use this expression are disappointed in the people in their life or society. They want to communicate this: I’ve done so much good, helped those in need, sacrificed my time and effort, but no one cares. No one appreciates what I have done for them. Some bad people get wealthy and get all the rewards.

It looks like there’s a thin line between self-pity and cynicism. In one sentence, we can see it: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Video examples:

Mean Girls (2004)
The Tailor of Panama (2001)
EnglishIdioms & expressions

Valentina Dordevic

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Valentina Dordevic

Hello! My name is Valentina. Book digesting is my specialty. I transform book ideas into easy-to-follow summaries, articles, study guides, reviews, essays, analyses, slides, or e-books.

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