No Good Deed Goes Unpunished – Meaning and Origin

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

The origin of the expression no good deed goes unpunished has been ascribed to several writers and personalities. 

We will examine the meaning of the phrase no good deed goes unpunished and where it originated. You’ll also read some examples of the quote’s use in sentences.

No good deed goes unpunished means that the recipient might not properly appreciate a kind action. Or it may mean that doing something kind will lead to expectations and demands for more help and benefits. 

Is it True that “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”?

The proverb is a cynical twist on the idea that good people are rewarded for being good. In real life, this is often not the case. 

Many don’t understand that the “punishment” may come from the person to whom you’ve done the good deed. You try to help someone, then they respond by hurting or betraying you. 

Why It Works

The phrase may have been common because humans are taught that being good translates into rewards. Internally, good deeds make you feel like your life has a purpose. Externally, being nice will lead to success in different forms.

If you want to be happy, volunteer. If you wish for a prosperous life, be a helpful person. The favors you give will come back bigger to you.

It’s the standard that moral philosophers have set. Even religions follow the same conventional viewpoint. If you’re a good person on Earth, you’ll go to heaven. But if you’re a sinner, you’ll go to hell. 

So, when you volunteer, and your life doesn’t get any better, you’ll say, no good deed goes unpunished. But the truth is, some people do not want to be helped. And they don’t always punish you intentionally. It’s just how life is!

It’s a widespread yet complex trope you’ll find in books and movies. Have you watched a movie before and thought the hero was foolish or ignorant for being too heroic? Lazarus Long says, “Good intentions are no substitute for knowing how the buzzsaw works.” 

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Origin

The proverb no good deed goes unpunished has no actual origin. But it has been variously attributed to Walter Winchell, John P. Grier, Oscar Wilde, Andrew Mellon, and Clare Boothe Luce. 

One of the earliest known uses was during the 12th century, when Walter Map wrote the phrase, “left no good deed unpunished, no bad one unrewarded,” in his work “De nugis curialium.

It wasn’t a common belief in history since moral philosophers and religious people believed the opposite. In fact, Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “No evil deed is unpunished by God the just judge. Therefore, no good deed is unrewarded.”

In Poetry and Creative Arts

Dante Alighieri, a poet, wrote the same quote on The Divine Comedy. He said, “amor sementa in voi d’ogne virtute/e d’ogni operazion che merta pene.” In English, it means “love is the seed in you of every virtue/and of all acts deserving punishment.” 

In 1942, Walter Winchell used the quote to discuss unnamed diplomats in his column. He said, “[It] reminds me of the line diplomats use: ‘No good deed goes unpunished in Washington.”

William Lashner used it in his novel. The line goes, “But that’s the way of it, Detective… No good deed goes unpunished.” 

No good deed goes unpunished was also quoted by Brendan Gill in his 1950s novel. A 2003 Broadway musical, Wicked, also features the song No Good Deed. 

In The Lake Shore, when a girl experienced a car accident, Sue Miller said, “I was visiting my… great-aunt. She’s in a nursing home.” The man who rescued the character responded, “Well, no good deed goes unpunished.”

The saying is also present in Franklin Pierce Adam’s satirical poem entitled No Good Deed Goes Unpunished (So Shines a Good Deed in a Naughty World).

“No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” Sentence Examples

Collateral is one of those dramas where nobody smiles, it’s always raining and no good deed goes unpunished. (The Guardian)

“They took him in and it’s a classic case of no good deed goes unpunished,” Lewis, who did not name the family, said. (The Daily Star)

Pilots are reluctant to research answers to their questions and concerns due to apprehension that “no good deed goes unpunished” when disclosing confidential information to a government entity. (The Business Jet Traveler Magazine)

“No good deed goes unpunished,” Municipal Manager Shane O’Keefe said Tuesday night of a dispute between the village of Bellows Falls and a business owner over sprinkler system reimbursements. (The Brattleboro Reformer)

Final Words on “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”

No good deed goes unpunished is a poetic way to say that life is unfair. Bad things can still happen to you no matter how good you are. This situation is not only common in movies and books but also in real life.

Want to brush up on more idioms? Have a look at our breakdown of “Ace in the Hole” so you can confidently use it in your writing.