No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Meaning, Origin & Correct Usage

Are you scratching your head at the saying “no good deed goes unpunished”? We’ll break down what this phrase means so you can use it correctly in your writing.

You might have been confused after hearing English speakers use the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished.” After all, shouldn’t good deeds be met with praise or appreciation?

This phrase is an example of sardonic commentary. It is a way to express that those who are kind and helpful will suffer due to this attribute. You use it to express frustration if you or someone else experiences negative consequences for trying to do the right thing.

One of the most famous uses of this saying came from science-fiction writer Joe Haldeman when he said: “No good deed goes unpunished. I missed the moon landing by being nice to a stranger.”

There are a lot of conflicting stories about the origin of this phrase. While some associate it with the teachings of Christianity, others believe Oscar Wilde, James Agate, or Clare Boothe Luce penned this term. However, the earlier recording of this sentiment dates back to the 12th Century.

You might also be interested in our guide on how to use figurative language.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Origin

Saint Thomas Aquinas
The phrase was famously flipped on its head in the 13th Century when Saint Thomas Aquinas created Summa Theologica

As mentioned earlier, there are some inconsistent stories about where the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” came from.

The earliest iteration came in the 12th Century when Courtier Walter Map penned De Nugis Curialium. In it, Map writes: “He spared none of his band who inclined to spare any, left no good deed unpunished, no bad one unrewarded; and when he could find no rival and no rebel on earth, like Capaneus, he challenged opposition from heaven.

The phrase was famously flipped on its head in the 13th Century when Saint Thomas Aquinas created Summa Theologica. However, it is not clear if Aquinas had read or was inspired by De Nugis Curialium. Also known as “The Summa,” is it a collection of the primary doctrine of the Catholic Church, intended to aid theology students in their studies.

In it, Aquinas writes: “For as punishment is to the evil act, so is 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.”

This passage expressed the opposite of the saying we know today: it suggests that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished.

Several versions of the original phrase were later used by Marie Belloc Lowndes, James Agate, and Walter Winchell in the 20th Century, which further contributed to the confusion. Although the quote is often attributed to Oscar Wilde, he never used this phrase in any of his written work.

How To Use The Phrase No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

In real life, people might use this phrase if they tried to help someone and were met with outright hostility. Although they might have had good intentions, the altruism wasn’t welcome.

Alternatively, you could use this phrase if you did a favor for someone and it backfired, or they weren’t grateful for it. For example, if you allowed a friend to stay in your home while they were looking for a new place to live, and they destroyed your furniture.

Another example scenario where this phrase might be appropriate is if you are the most productive employee at work. Instead of being rewarded with a promotion, gift, bonus, or a raise, you are delegated more tasks and responsibilities by your managers. In this case, you might feel that you’re being taken advantage of for being good at your job.

Here are some more examples:

  • I tried to rescue a stray cat and it scratched me, I guess no good deed goes unpunished.
  • Bob did CPR on a man who later tried to sue. No good deed goes unpunished, after all.
  • I let her borrow my study notes, and she ruined them by spilling soda everywhere. No good deed really does go unpunished.
  • I gave a customer an extra scoop of ice cream for free, and she complained it was too small! No good deed goes unpunished in customer service.
  • I helped one person with their computer issues, and now everyone comes to me. No good deed goes unpunished.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Synonyms

While you might want to learn more phrases like this one to avoid repetition in your writing, there are almost no synonyms for “no good deed goes unpunished.”

The closet is “eaten bread is soon forgotten.” This Irish proverb is a way to express that others will forget the favors you have done for them.

You could also describe something as a “thankless task” to convey a similar point.

If you like this post, you might also be interested in our list of metaphors about life.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished In Pop Culture

Since this is such a common adage, it has been used quite often in pop culture.

Below are some examples of it appearing in songs:

  • The song No Good Deed from the Broadway musical Wicked.
  • Van Morrison’s song No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.
  • Drake’s song Light Up.

This saying is also quoted in dozens of TV shows and movies, including:

  • Spiderman No-Way Home
  • The Mentalist
  • V for Vendetta

Are you looking for more? Check out of list of movies that follow the hero’s journey trope.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: FAQs

Is “No Good Deed Unpunished” In The Bible?

The term “no good deed goes unpunished” was not said by Jesus and does not appear in the Bible. The confusion is because the phrase: “Now no evil deed is unpunished, by God the just judge. Therefore no good deed is unrewarded,” appears in AquinasSumma Theologica.


  • Aisling is an Irish journalist and content creator with a BA in Journalism & New Media. She has bylines in OK! Magazine, Metro, The Inquistr, and the Irish Examiner. She loves to read horror and YA. Find Aisling on LinkedIn.