UTANG NA LOOB: A PHILOSOPHICAL ANALYSIS
The search for identity is a difficult and complicated one, mainly because it involves attempting to discover something that others do not possess, which one can thereby call solely his own. This is true not only for individuals but for cultures as well.
There have been earnest efforts to discover and finally flesh out Filipino cultural identity, which, quite sadly, is ambiguous at best: having been forced to endure the encroachments of at least three foreign cultures for almost four hundred years, Filipinos find themselves confused, searching and groping for something—a trait, a belief, a view—that is free from any foreign taint.
Filipinos can consider very few of what they “have” today as something that is theirs and theirs alone. Being Christian, they realize that their religion is something altogether foreign. Being a democratic country, they realize that their government and their politics is a replica of the American way. It is no better in philosophy: to this day, many still wonder if such a thing as Filipino philosophy does exist.
But light always shines through the darkness.
One of the few things that mark a Filipino is his capacity to feel gratefulness for whatever comes his way. Certainly, Filipinos face difficulties head-on and they find themselves grateful even for these, as they give thanks for having the opportunity to encounter such hardships, consoling themselves that such challenges can only mean better lives later on.
And if the Filipino’s heart is tough enough to bear such difficulties, then certainly it, too, has room enough to be appreciative of all the good that comes the Filipino’s way. Faced with a difficult life, a Filipino no doubt finds it easy to be thankful for whatever good things and pleasant tidings come his way.
One of the many ways by which a Filipino expresses this appreciation is through gratitude. Mind you, a Filipino’s gratitude is no ordinary thing. It runs deep and true, cerulean, noble, and pure. And it remains inexpressible in any language save that of the Filipino’s.
As an indebtedness which even death cannot erase, utang na loob stands out among the many virtues that define a Filipino. The article is an attempt to explore the nature of utang na loob, as well as some of its many nuances. Often placing utang na loob in the context of other Filipino values, the article is a sojourn into the whys and wherefores of utang na loob, a deep seated reverence for gratitude, a soul-debt, if you will, a trait that the Filipino can call uniquely his own.
Much has been said and written about the Filipino, about the way he lives, and about the things he treasures. Even more has been written about the way he is and the way he relates to other people. The Filipino has been characterized as hospitable, kind, generous, forgiving, non-violent and patient. Ultimately, however, the Filipino is nothing if he is not grateful.
It is a truism to say that the Filipino culture is one that prizes the value of gratefulness. Even as a truism, it is inadequate, because it does nothing to distinguish the Filipino from other cultures that exhibit gratefulness. Certainly, the virtue of gratitude is not uniquely Filipino. The moral quality of gratefulness is universal (Singson 1979). But while this is true, it must be stressed that Filipino gratefulness, nonetheless, is peculiarly Filipino. It is therefore not enough to say simply that Filipinos as a people place importance on the value of gratitude but that it is the way we express our gratitude which contributes, in part, to our identity as a people. The Filipino sense of gratitude is uniquely Filipino, just as we are uniquely Filipino because of our sense of gratitude.
This, therefore, is the focus of this paper: to show just how peculiar the Filipino virtue of gratitude is, unique from the everyday and conventional way we have come to understand the term “gratitude,” and ultimately something altogether different from the familiar way we have come to know gratefulness.
Perhaps, this then is the primary motivation for the manner by which the issue regarding translation is approached. Many writers have made use of various translations of Filipino gratitude. Known in the vernacular as utang na loob, it has been translated as gratitude, as debt of gratitude, debt of goodwill, and, quite literally, as interior debt. It goes without saying that the issue regarding translation is such: which English translation of utang na loob is the more appropriate one?
Many have rejected the use of the term “gratitude” as an adequate translation, for the simple reason that the term fails to convey or encompass the complexities and the nuances of the term utang na loob. “Gratitude” as a term seems flat and contains very little, if not none at all, of the flavor and colorful nature of utang na loob. In addition, as was previously mentioned, gratitude is a universal moral trait. By agreeing to translate utang na loob as “gratitude” we lose much of the peculiarity that lends value to utang na loob. Utang na loob as gratitude becomes something common, trivial and ordinary.
An alternative to the term “gratitude” is “debt of gratitude.” While it attempts to convey some sense of lingering indebtedness, which thus differentiates it from mere “gratitude,” it remains nonetheless inadequate and insufficient, too blunt to convey any of the complexity of utang na loob.
There has been an instance wherein the term utang na loob has been translated, it seems a little too literally, into “interior debt.” While technically correct, it serves little purpose. “Interior debt” does not make much sense. The qualification of utang na loob implies the existence of an opposite, “exterior debt” or utang na labas. But as Singson (1979: 135) clarifies “there is not in current use in Filipino languages such an expression as utang na labas meaning external debt.” Thus, utang na loob as interior debt possesses little cognitive meaning because its foil, utang na labas is not even recognized as sensible.
In a paper entitled “Debts of goodwill and interpersonal justice,” Leonardo de Castro (2001) has argued for the use of “debts of goodwill” as a viable translation of the term utang na loob, instead of “debt of gratitude” because “the former terminology focuses attention on important features of the concept that the words ‘debt of gratitude’ fail to capture.” He (2001) further argues that
“Debt of good will” is meant to be a faithful translation of the Filipino term “utang na loob.” The use of the words “good will” instead of the word “gratitude” reflects an important nuance. Taken literally, the latter suggests that repayment is a matter of gratitude. But more than gratitude is called for when the recipient of assistance or favor puts a premium on the good will that is being conveyed.
To date, it seems that no other English translation more closely approximates the meaning of utang na loob than “debt of goodwill.” However, often, as an alternative recourse, others opt to forgo translation altogether and simply retain the Filipino term, in order to convey the peculiarity of utang na loob and because, as George Guthrie (1971: 61) argues, “We want to emphasize that there is a certain distortion of meaning in translation.” Thus, no matter how much “debt of goodwill” may closely approximate utang na loob in meaning, still something is lost, some distortion in meaning takes place. Thus, going back to the question, which translation is appropriate? It seems none. This paper opts to retain and make use of the term utang na loob instead of any English translation, first, to convey the peculiarity and significant difference of Filipino utang na loob from the virtue of gratitude found in other cultures and, second, in order to avoid any distortion in translation.
NATURE OF UTANG NA LOOB
Having finally rid ourselves of the semantic complexities of translations, we are then free to pursue our investigation of the nature of utang na loob. The question that needs to be asked, then: just what is utang na loob?
Literally, utang means “debt” and loob means “inside.” From this, one can see that literally, utang na loob means “inside debt” or “interior debt.” As was previously mentioned, such an explanation/translation of utang na loob is much too literal to be of any sense or use to our purposes.
There is a need to clarify the term loob. While it literally means “inside,” translating it simply as such prompts one to wonder, “loob ng ano?” or the inside of what? Now it becomes clear that loob as inside does not make much sense. In truth, loob is more properly understood if it is done so in the context of the Filipino term kalooban.
We will find that it is just as difficult to arrive at an exact and faithful English translation of the term kalooban as it was with utang na loob. Suffice it, then, to say that kalooban in a general sense refers to matters concerning the inner being, the soul if you will, of a person. However, it is not the term used to refer to the soul of a person, which Filipinos call kaluluwa. In addition, kalooban does not refer to the goodness of the inner being of a person, as there can be mabuting (good) kalooban and masamang (bad) kalooban.
Loob, therefore in the context of kalooban refers not to literally the inside, the guts and innards of a human being, but to the inner life and being of a person. It points to an intangible, metaphysical component of a Filipino’s being, without which one would not be human.
Given this context of loob, we begin to see one of the many subtle nuances of utang na loob that differentiates it from mere gratitude. Utang na loob is no ordinary debt. It is a characteristically strong sense of gratefulness taken with extreme seriousness by Filipinos. Utang na loob is, in many ways, a debt incurred by the inner being of a person, a soul debt, which persists and endures, even after the original debt has been paid.
This implies that Filipinos are able to distinguish between two components of a debt. The first is the physical part of the debt which comprises the favor. This can take the form of the money that makes up the loan, or a borrowed car, or even a job that one “gives” to a friend. There are occasions, however, when even this “physical” portion of the debt may not be readily observable, as in the case of saving another person’s life. In any case, we refer to this, the component which comprises the favor, as the observable component of the debt.
The second, and often more important component is non-observable, that is, an “internal and externally non-observable debt in terms of the good will or benevolence out of which the favor was given or done and which accompanies the act of giving or doing” (Singson 1979: 135). This second component is not so much the money or car that is being lent, or even the act of saving another person’s life (as all these fall under the first component) as it is the person’s kindness or benevolence or good-naturedness or sincere willingness out of which the giving or granting of the favor arises.
Utang na loob arises not out of the first component, not because one borrowed a specific amount of money or a particular thing. In truth, often, the value of the loan or nature of the thing lent has little effect on whether or not a person incurs utang na loob (thought it may “magnify” the “amount” of utang na loob that must be repaid, as we shall see later). Rather, it is the second component that “creates” pagkakautang na loob or indebtedness. Utang na loob refers to this indebtedness that arises out of this benevolent willingness of another to grant one a favor, regardless of the nature of the observable component of the favor. “What the Filipino term ‘utang na loob’ literally means is that the lender is giving part of himself. He conveys good will. Thus, this is what he is owed. The beneficiary of his favor incurs a debt of good will that needs to be repaid” (de Castro 2001). The acknowledgment and eager and willing reciprocity of this indebtedness is called pagtanaw ng utang na loob.
The willingness and even eagerness to acknowledge such internal debt of benevolence and to return it in kind by rendering a similar favor or at least through token gifts or services which function to express one’s feeling of appreciation and loyalty to the benefactor is what Filipinos term utang na loob (Singson 1979:135).
Such metaphysical underpinnings of indebtedness are surely not without its complexities, the foremost of which is repayment. Unlike an ordinary loan or mortgage which one easily repays by fulfilling the financial obligations one has incurred, utang na loob is essentially very difficult, if not impossible to repay, primarily because the debt is an informal and intangible one. There are no contracts, no formal agreements as to how or how much utang na loob is being incurred.
A debt of good will is incurred under informal circumstances. The giving of assistance or the grant of a favor takes place without a formal indication or clear understanding of how it ought to be repaid or reciprocated (de Castro 2001).
This informality and ambiguity of repayment of the debt is merely the beginning. De Castro’s (2001) questions are as haunting as they are disturbing.
But there are no formal indications of repayment terms. There are no clear bases for determining what is owed. So many questions need to be asked. Is there an obligation on the part of the beneficiary to repay the good will? If there is, can the obligation be quantified? Are there time limits for settling the obligation? Is there a right on the part of the person granting the favor to demand that he be given a favor in return? Can he ask for a specific favor?
In addition to the informality, utang na loob is incurred implicitly and is an indebtedness that is not easily and readily assumed. Filipinos find this kind of indebtedness as something rather uncomfortable. It is a humbling, and sometimes even a humiliating experience which does not sit well with the Filipino’s sense of amor propio1, or loosely, pride or self-esteem. Often, it is only in dire circumstances that a Filipino will entreat another for help. In general, however, it is rather uncommon for Filipinos to ask for favors, especially large ones, because it involves incurring utang na loob. In those occasions when utang na loob is reluctantly incurred, sincere efforts are made by the beneficiary to not only return the favor, but to do so as soon as possible, so as to avoid feeling hiya2 (loosely, shame) and the loss of face. It is this feeling of hiya (which arises out of the beneficiary himself and not from any external source) that compels the beneficiary to repay the utang na loob.
There is a feeling of uneasiness about being on the indebted side. This reluctance to be or to remain the indebted party encourages one to make or at least to attempt adequate reciprocation with interest as soon as the chance is given (Singson 1979: 137).
When utang na loob is incurred, the benefactor often makes no mention of it, because to do so is indecorous and goes against the common sense of courtesy of a Filipino. The benefactor conveys good will, but must not make a big show of it. In turn, the debtor is expected to know, without being told, that he has incurred utang na loob.
There is, however, an added twist to all this. First of all, because utang na loob is an indebtedness due to the good will out of which the favor was granted, it demands that the same favor be granted out of sheer benevolence, and not because of any expectation of reward or return. It is this altruism, this benevolence, often called kagandahang loob (or literally, a beautiful/good inner self) that creates the situation of indebtedness (de Castro 2001). However, because the favor was extended out of pure benevolence, then the benefactor must not necessarily expect compensation or reciprocation.
Actions done in anticipation of reward or personal gain are not done out of kusang loob [one’s own inner self]. There can be no kagandahang loob if actions are tainted with a selfish desire. If one’s beneficial actions were calculated to derive public recognition or material reward, they lose the purity that is essential to kagandahang loob (de Castro 2001).
The implication of this is clear: nothing compels the beneficiary to recognize the utang na loob, since the act was done out of pure good will, which demands that no return must be expected because otherwise, there would be no good will, and hence no indebtedness. Nothing, at least, that arises from the benefactor.
Given the nature of kagandahang loob, it can be inferred that the benefactor does not have a right to a reciprocal treatment by the beneficiary. The reason is that kagandahang loob presupposes disinterest in compensation or reward for the beneficial act. By demanding compensation or reward, the benefactor would be negating one of the conditions necessary for the establishment of the debt of good will. If he were truly motivated purely by a genuine concern to address an urgent need of the beneficiary, he could not be making such demands (de Castro 2001).
De Castro then argues that there is therefore no obligation on the part of the beneficiary to “repay” an act out of kagandahang loob. However, we cannot simply say that there is likewise no debt, because “The kagandahang loob needs to be returned. Thus it would seem that the beneficiary has an obligation to return the kagandahang loob” (de Castro 2001).
The irony now is this: the beneficiary is obligated to reciprocate an act out of kagandahang loob, which demands that the reciprocation is done freely, willfully, without any external compulsion. In de Castro’s (2001) words:
However, this last statement introduces a conceptual puzzle. Kagandahang loob requires that the agent act without external compulsion and be motivated purely by a concern for the beneficiary of his action. But how can one be free from external compulsion and be motivated purely by an altruistic concern as he complies with an obligation?
De Castro’s (2001) solution, to which this paper adheres, is to argue that the obligation of utang na loob is a self-imposed one. It is imposed by the benefactor upon himself. “He owes it to nobody but himself to reciprocate with another kagandahang loob. It is only he who can compel himself to generate kagandahang loob without violating the requirement of the absence of external compulsion.”
Now, because a self-imposed obligation exists, then repayment is necessary. But the question is, how does one repay utang na loob? The very nature of utang na loob demands its intangibility: because it does not in any way refer to the observable component but rather arises out of the non-observable component, it is therefore something that cannot be repaid by means of the fulfillment of any material obligation. It is unrepayable by any material means. This, however, is not to say that it is something that cannot be reciprocated. Often, utang na loob is reciprocated when a person exhibits the willingness to extend the same benevolence in turn to his benefactor. “Perhaps the only thing that can be said with certainty is that the beneficiary must be willing to repay the favor with another favor. The recipient of good will must be ready to give of himself in return when the opportunity arises” (de Castro 2001).
We must be careful, however, not to mistake reciprocity with repayment, as, in the case of utang na loob. These are two very different things. While it is possible and even easy to reciprocate utang na loob (and in that case it may be said that a person is someone who is marunong tumanaw ng utang na loob, loosely, someone who knows how to return a favor), a Filipino often finds it very difficult to completely repay this kind of indebtedness, primarily because there is inextricable ambiguity that surrounds utang na loob, particularly regarding the amount of utang na loob that has been incurred, precisely because utang na loob is not something that can be quantified due to its intangible nature.
There is a bitter irony in this: though utang na loob may be something that is impossible, or at best difficult, to repay, this “unrepayability” results in a Filipino feeling that he is all the more indebted, and thus strives even more to repay utang na loob. Indeed, the “larger” the utang na loob, the more difficult it is to repay, and the harder a Filipino must try to pay it back.
The question remains, though. How does one repay a debt such as utang na loob? At the risk of contradicting what has been said earlier, the only acceptable form of repayment is reciprocity of the good will that was extended by the benefactor, even as reciprocity does not connote repayment. I repeat the words of de Castro: “The recipient of good will must be ready to give of himself in return when the opportunity arises.” Repayment of the loan, or the swift return of a borrowed car extinguishes the observable component of the debt, but not the unobservable one. Since the unobservable component is a debt of good will, then the repayment is that of good will as well.
However, this is where the complexity of utang na loob lies. Reciprocity in terms of the willingness to “repay” the good will extended to a Filipino by a benefactor, though very much acceptable, often does not extinguish utang na loob. There is no contradiction involved here. For Filipinos, while it is possible to repay an utang na loob in the form of reciprocity, such a debt persists, endures, and often remains unextinguished.
This difficulty in “repaying” utang na loob is not at all helped by the fact that repayment is often a game of one-upmanship. Upon falling under such obligation, a Filipino will often make grandiose acts of benevolence in the hope of extinguishing an utang na loob. After being the recipient of such benevolence, the original benefactor is now compelled to feel indebted to the original beneficiary—it is the benefactor who now owes the beneficiary utang na loob. This, in turn, compels the original benefactor to repay the newly-incurred utang na loob with an even larger act of benevolence, which then compels the original beneficiary to feel even more indebted to the benefactor than he was before. Such a cycle of payment and repayment continues, viciously and often ad nauseam, until it comes to a point when neither party knows who owes whom how much utang na loob, a debt whose amount was already unquantifiable at the outset.
While there is definitely an obligation on the part of the beneficiary to repay utang na loob, such an obligation remains unquantifiable in terms of amount and duration. Many Filipinos nurse such an obligation over extremely long periods of time, sometimes even transcending the lifetimes of the original beneficiaries and benefactors. In such cases, utang na loob is passed on to the sons and daughters of both parties as some sort of legacy, to be fulfilled as faithfully as it was by their parents.
Intentional failure, unwillingness, or even the mere hesitation to repay utang na loob is severely looked down upon and is considered reprehensible behavior. Ungratefulness does not even begin to describe such an attitude. Filipinos consider one who refuses to reciprocate or turns his back on such a debt of good will as someone who is ingrato or walang utang na loob. Such a reproach is not to be taken lightly. To be called an ingrato is to call into serious question one’s sense of personal honor and dignity. “It would be difficult to find a more biting reproach or invective against a Filipino than calling him an ingrate or a tao na walang utang na loob—an ungrateful one or a man bereft of a sense of gratitude” (Singson 1979: 135).
Because of this, Filipinos find themselves educated on utang na loob rather early in life. “Filipino parents through stern and persuasive means inculcate upon their offspring as soon as they are old enough to understand that no decent person can afford to be without concern for utang na loob” (Singson 1979: 137).
There are occasions, however, when one may be unable to repay an utang na loob, even as one may desire to do so. In cases such as these, a person is not necessarily one who is ingrato, because he is still willing, though, unable, to repay the debt of goodwill. However, that person is expected to feel hiya, which arises out of his failure, though unintentional, to repay the utang na loob.
Failure to pay one’s utang na loob by requiting with interest brings, or at least should bring hiya or shame on the part of ingrato. Likewise, failure to render partial payments through occasional token gifts or services expressive of one’s recognition of indebtedness causes or ought to cause hiya (Singson 1979: 137).
In the event that one fails to recognize or admit to this feeling of hiya, one is then labeled as someone who is walang hiya or shameless, a reproach which is almost as reprehensible as walang utang na loob.
It is, however, considered improper to explicitly “collect” on an utang na loob. Just as the beneficiary is expected to know, without being told, that he has incurred utang na loob, the benefactor is expected to say little, if not nothing at all, about the indebtedness. In fact, ideally, even waiting for reciprocity for a favor granted is something that the benefactor should not do since kagandahang loob, a vital component of the indebtedness demands that he expect nothing in return. It is, however, and strangely so, common for benefactors to attempt to leverage some sort of advantage when asking for favors by calling on past favors they have granted and for a beneficiary to repay utang na loob.
However, a benefactor who attempts to collect on an utang na loob by invoking past indebtedness is said to be nanunumbat, an act which is frowned upon by Filipino culture, for the reason that Filipinos do not like being reminded of their indebtedness. Likewise, a benefactor who performs benevolent acts in the hope of creating a situation of indebtedness between him and his “beneficiary,” creates what are known as “debts of ill will” (de Castro 1994). Strangely enough, it is for this reason that Filipinos sometimes refrain from helping others, because they are reluctant to place their benefactor in a position of indebtedness.
OTHER SENSES OF UTANG NA LOOB
The preceding paragraphs describe the nature of utang na loob in the general sense, as quite loosely, that of gratitude for a debt of good will. There are, however, three other contexts of utang na loob. Aside from utang na loob as a debt of good will, Filipinos also see utang na loob as a means of expressing one’s loyalty to one’s benefactors, as an entreatment or a means to make pleas, and finally as an expression of vehement disagreement or as an expletive.
Utang na loob as a means of expressing loyalty
to one’s benefactors
This sense of utang na loob, as with the general sense of utang na loob, normally arises out of a benefactor doing a beneficiary a good turn out of pure good will. The emphasis in this case, however, is not so much the general reciprocity on the part of the beneficiary but “the special claim of the benefactors’ upon the beneficiary’s adherence, appreciation, and service in virtue of the special favor done or conferred out of pure good will” (Singson 1979: 141). This is to say that the means of repaying the utang na loob in this sense is manifested as a loyalty to a benefactor which arises out of the debt of good will that has been incurred. Loyalty, therefore, in this sense is understood as “grateful loyalty.”
We must note, however, that loyalty in the Filipino context, can take on a strange twist. Often, loyalty that arises out of utang na loob means loyalty no matter what. This means that through thick or thin, right or wrong, someone who is bound by this particular kind of “grateful loyalty” is expected to side with his benefactor. There are extreme cases when this kind of loyalty demands that a beneficiary cover up the wrong doings of a benefactor (pagtatakip) if only to fulfill the obligations of utang na loob.
This sort of loyalty is extended to a benefactor, to whom a significant utang na loob is owed. Benefactors may include a landowner whose land is being farmed and tilled by peasants, a friend who helps one get a job, historical figures who played important roles in the shaping of the country’s future, or one’s parents, or even God.
In the case of the benefactor being one’s parents, utang na loob therefore pertains to the feeling of a deep sense of responsibility towards one’s parents as a means of expressing gratitude for one’s life and for the care and love that the parents extended to the person as a child. “Grown up children vie with each other for the privilege of taking care of their retired parents [because] they are motivated by a sense of utang na loob” (Singson 1979: 138).
Filipinos, in general, also feel a deep sense of indebtedness to the supernatural. “The religiosity of Filipinos also takes on the color of utang na loob, gratefulness to those supernatural beings to whom, above all, they believe they owe their life and felicity” (Singson 1979: 138). We can consider the relationship between Filipino religiosity and their sense of utang na loob as something rather circular: Filipinos are deeply religious and have a tendency to celebrate religious occasions in a lavish fashion because of their sense of utang na loob. However, Filipinos feel this utang na loob deeply and most fervently because of their religiosity.
Utang na loob as “Please do something”
There are occasions when utang na loob takes on a completely different flavor from that of a debt of good will. This is because sometimes, Filipinos may make use of it to make some sort of plea or entreaty, or as a means of asking for a great favor. By invoking utang na loob, a Filipino places himself at the tender mercies of his would-be benefactor. In this sense, utang na loob is synonymous with parang awa mo na (or loosely, “please have mercy”). Taken literally, this sense of utang na loob seems to mean that one would be very grateful to another, if that other person would do as one asks. This, however, is too literal an interpretation and does not make much sense.
A much better recourse is to understand this in the context of kagandahang loob, or benevolence which is the true source of utang na loob. If utang na loob arises out of the benevolence out of which a favor is given, then clearly, the supplication is better understood as an appeal to a person’s sense of good will or kagandahang loob.
For instance, if a Filipino is in grave danger of getting hurt or mauled by an assailant, he or she might make the plea, “utang na loob, huwag po ninyo akong sasaktan” which loosely means “please don’t hurt me.” (Note that the person could have said “para niyo nang awa, huwag po ninyo akong sasaktan,” and it would be the same thing). The plea for mercy is a powerful one, particularly because it appeals to a person’s intrinsic benevolence and sense of kindness. Only a truly heartless individual can afford to ignore such a plea.
Utang na Loob as an expletive or
an expression of vehement disagreement
Words, sentences and other utterances that we speak are often emotionally charged. “The language we use to express ourselves varies from the neutral to the very emotionally charged” (Seech 1993: 17). To say that a word is emotionally charged, either positively or negatively, is to say that the word evokes strong feelings within us. Words such as “bribe,” “hoard,” “selfish,” and “rude” have in general negative charges, while words such as “pleasant,” “share,” “efficient,” and “kind” have, in common and ordinary usage, positive charges. It is therefore common for many public speakers to make use of rhetoric in their speeches in order to be more persuasive as they make use of emotionally charged words.
Though the word gratitude may have an emotional charge that is only slightly positive, among Filipinos, the term utang na loob possesses a very strong emotional charge. Whether the charge is positive or negative varies depending on the context in which it is used.
Due to this strong emotional charge, there are occasions when utang na loob is used as an expression to convey strong feelings, often that of vehement disagreement, about an issue or an idea. It is also sometimes used as an expletive, though generally not a vulgar one.
There are many examples, and these have been previously mentioned. Sometimes, when a Filipino wishes to convey strong disappointment at not being helped or granted a favor, he resorts to saying something of this sort: “Pagkatapos ng lahat ng ginawa ko para sa iyo, heto ang isusukli mo? Wala kang utang na loob!” This may be loosely translated as, “After all that I have done for you, this is what I get in return? You are ungrateful!” Filipinos in general find it a strongly charged rebuke to a refusal for a request. It is particularly potent if the one who refused owes a debt of good will. Friendships often end after an episode wherein one party makes this sort of an accusation.
In other instances, utang na loob can also be used to express strong feelings of disagreement with an issue or a proposed idea. Take the following, for instance.
Utang na loob lang ano! Si Gilrhea isasabak sa Miss Universe????? Ano ba kayo? BULAG? Tama na nga ang inyong pagpapantasya na si Gilrhea eh beauty queen material! Susmaryosep! Kahit balutan ng ginto at pasakayin sa 1,000 helikopter eh hinde talaga MAGANDA!!!!! HOY GISING!!!!!! Basilio, Crispin, mga anak ko!!!!! (www.voy.com /13953/4/3803.html)
A little more complicated to translate than the previous example, the above paragraph roughly means that the speaker disagrees with the idea that Gilrhea is beautiful enough to join the Miss Universe pageant. A little on the colorful side, with several sarcastic remarks about gold and helicopters, one cannot fail but notice the particular context of utang na loob in this paragraph. Hardly a remark about indebtedness, “utang na loob lang ano!” is used more to punctuate the speaker’s expression of extreme disagreement with the idea of a certain Gilhrea joining a beauty pageant.
Finally, Filipinos sometimes use utang na loob as an expletive to convey not necessarily disagreement, but strong emotions, often to shock the listener into paying attention to what the speaker is saying. For instance the expression, “Pwede ba, tigil-tigilan mo ako? Utang na loob! Huwag mo akong kulitin!” A very loose translation of the above is, ”Stop bothering me!” Much of the color of the above statement is lost in translation, particularly because this color is provided by the phrase utang na loob. Again, in this context, utang na loob is not a reference to any debt of goodwill. Rather, it acts as an expletive, making the statement “stop bothering me” a more forceful and emotional one.
An evaluation of Utang na Loob as a cultural value
The peculiarity of utang na loob brings with it many complexities. First is the difficulty in explicating and differentiating it from the ordinary sense of gratitude, which is universal. This we have already dealt with in the previous sections of this paper.
What remains to be done is to determine whether utang na loob is a desirable virtue or an undesirable one. This, however, is no easy task, as in the end, the answer as to whether utang na loob is a positive or negative cultural trait is frustratingly ambiguous. That is, in some instances, it is something altogether positive, whereas in others, it is something completely negative.
It is quite easy to understand why one can consider utang na loob as a positive cultural value. Ultimately, utang na loob is just another, though peculiar, strain of the universal virtue of gratitude. To be thankful and grateful for favors extended to us, to wish to return these favors to our benefactors, certainly, there is little that is undesirable there. That utang na loob is intensely felt and lived by Filipinos only goes to show that Filipinos, arguably, place more premium on gratitude and are able to express this in ways more profound and colorful than other cultures.
In addition, gratitude, in particular, utang na loob, among Filipinos is not an isolated virtue, one that stands apart from other cultural virtues. In truth, utang na loob lies at the crux of many other Filipino values. The relationship of utang na loob with hiya for instance is an intricate one, with neither virtue being completely free from complications brought about by the other. One must fulfill utang na loob because without it, he must bear the burden that is hiya.
Utang na loob is also one of the many sources of Filipino religiosity. The Filipino is bound to God, because of God’s act of creation. But more than just this creation, what solidifies this bond, and therefore creates utang na loob is that God not only created the universe, but He sustains it and the Filipino as well. God is the Filipino’s rock, his sanctuary, the one true hope that shines through the deepest darkness, and His love the one thing that sustains him. Because of this, the Filipino finds the need to return this benevolence, no matter how insufficient this reciprocal act may be. Hence, it is the Filipino’s gratitude to God that compels him to not only worship and praise Him, but to celebrate His feasts with an exuberance rarely matched by any other culture.
In addition to religiosity, utang na loob is likewise central to how a Filipino forms his loyalties. While Filipinos will often be loyal to a friend or a family member, this sort of loyalty nonetheless pales in comparison to the kind of loyalty that arises out of utang na loob. A benefactor to whom a Filipino owes utang na loob can rest easy knowing that nothing short of something miraculous can make a Filipino turn his back on a pledge of loyalty rooted in utang na loob. Similarly, a parent can count on his child for support during his twilight years, as the Filipino views this as a means of repaying one’s utang na loob to one’s parents. It is the moral force of utang na loob that compels this: no Filipino who has any sense of utang na loob would dare send his parents to a nursing home.
Utang na loob binds the Filipino to his kapwa, his fellowman. It forms the foundations of his loyalty, his religiosity, his fellowship with the people around him. With it, and through it, he expresses in a thoroughly unique way, his heartfelt gratitude for a deed that springs from the wellspring of goodness that Filipinos believe to be living within each and every one of us. Because of it, the Filipino preserves his identity. At no other time is a Filipino truly a Filipino as when he takes it upon himself to fulfill any and all obligations arising out of utang na loob.
But again, a virtue as intensely felt as utang na loob is not without its negative consequences, and for many reasons. True altruism is an ideal, and even among Filipinos, such an ideal is not always upheld. For utang na loob to be binding and true, the benefactor must extend the act of good will without any thought of reciprocation; such is the demand of acts of goodwill. If any reciprocation is expected or even demanded, then the act no longer arises out of pure good will and thus no utang na loob is owed.
Even as utang na loob demands this disinterestedness on the part of the benefactor in any sort of reciprocation, it remains uncommon, even among Filipinos, for one to act without expecting any measure of reciprocity. At its ugliest, a Filipino will attempt to explicitly collect on an utang na loob; he will resort to sumbat, to explicitly and palpably remind a creditor of the favors owed and the returns expected, in order to compel the latter’s obeisance to his whims. In cases such as these, utang na loob is used to control, to enforce obedience and compliance, and a Filipino will more often than not obey, no matter what the cost or consequences. And because utang na loob truly is compelling, often a Filipino will do something against his will or, worse, something illegal or immoral, if such a request is made against the backdrop of his pagkakautang or indebtedness.
There are occasions when unscrupulous individuals will take advantage of a Filipino’s sense of utang na loob. De Castro relates how a person may grant a favor to another for the specific purpose of creating a relationship of binding indebtedness. For instance, he can lend an amount of money that is nearly impossible for a housekeeper to pay not because he truly wishes to help the poor person get out of a tight situation but because he wants to make that person beholden to him. His aim is to establish a prospectively profitable indebtedness. He can use the indebtedness to extract disproportionate or inappropriate favors.
Such a scenario is not something that is unlikely. On the contrary, it is fairly common in Filipino society for housekeepers, helpers, tenants and the like, to incur not just financial obligations, but utang na loob as well. While the amount the housekeeper owes may be difficult to repay, the utang na loob eventually becomes impossible to reciprocate. This results in the indebtedness not just of the housekeeper but of his entire family as well. Thus we see, among Filipinos, cases of servants becoming indentured for life. There are even occasions when a lifetime is not enough to repay an utang na loob as the children of the original benefactors and creditors continue the legacy of indebtedness. The intensity of utang na loob gives the indebtedness enough force to survive even the death of the original contractors of the obligation.
Small wonder, then, that Filipinos are reluctant to incur utang na loob, simply because it is very, very difficult to dig one out of such a deep hole. This is likewise the reason why some Filipinos are more than hesitant to grant large favors, because doing so means placing the recipient of the act of goodwill in a position of indebtedness. By granting large favors, a Filipino will unwittingly dig the hole that another Filipino is unwilling to find himself stuck in.
It is difficult to say whether these negative effects and consequences of utang na loob outweigh its positive aspects. But certainly, all of a sudden, it makes us pause, and compels us to ask whether utang na loob is a positive or negative cultural value. And it is not just utang na loob that comes into question, because as we attempt to determine the value of utang na loob, we realize that we cannot avoid examining our ideas of gratitude as well. We stare through muddy waters and peer through looking glasses darkly as we ask, just what is gratitude and how much gratitude is enough? With utang na loob, the question becomes a complicated and altogether confusing one. As it is, very few, if any at all, answers are forthcoming.
At the least, therefore, there can be no definite answer as to whether utang na loob is a positive or negative value because it is at best a two-edged sword. It must suffice then to say that ambiguity surrounds utang na loob. It is an indebtedness that is incurred implicitly, and thus, it is sometimes unclear as to exactly which occasions give rise to it. Neither party knows exactly how much utang na loob is owed, nor when an utang na loob has been sufficiently reciprocated. And finally, as to whether it is desirable or not, that too is unclear as utang na loob has its benefits and disadvantages.
To others, such ambiguity, to have no idea whether a debt has been repaid, must certainly be frustrating. However, Filipinos in general feel comfortable with such ambiguity. As with most Asian cultures, Filipinos celebrate this indefiniteness; it is a grayness that is found in most of their other values, and it marks and colors their culture which responds with a resplendence the Filipino can call his own.
1. Amor Propio may be understood as insecurity, indolence, arrogance, or irritability but is more accurately described as a strong sense of individual dignity (Guthrie 1971: 61-62).
2. Hiya is a feeling of inferiority, embarrassment, shyness, and of alienation, which is experienced as acutely distressing (Guthrie 1971: 62).
De Castro, Leonardo. 2001. Debts of goodwill and interpersonal justice. <http://www.Bu.Edu/wcp/mainasia.Htm>. Accessed: 15 December 2001.
Guthrie, George M., ed. 1971. Six perspectives on the Philippines. Makati: Bookmark.
Seech, Zachary. 1993. Open minds and everyday reasoning. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Singson, Jose. 1979. Philippine ethical values. Manila: Textbook Development Committee, De La Salle University.