What Filipinos Often Forget About Utang Na Loob in the Age of Individualism


Sure, we don't owe anything to our parents. We certainly don't owe them for being born. It's not like we chose to or wanted to exist in this world in the first place. The anti-natalist argument is enough reason to withdraw from this whole children-as-a-retirement-plan ordeal. Sure, we don't owe anything to our boss, too. A job is a job, and that's all that it should be. We're as disposable to them as the next paper plate for the token pizza party up in the pantry shelf. And now, we certainly don't owe anything to our kababayans. We never felt like we belonged there, cannot find any identifiable traits between us and them, and have been wanting to leave ever since the day we dreamed of a new self, a new life.

All these are valid.

The concept of utang na loob, watered down by time, forgetfulness, and individualist notions, has garnered unfavorable notions among Filipinos today. The sentiments against it are made all the more well-founded in cases when it's weaponized, whether by abusive parents or people from our communities or any form of aggregator. We don't want to partake in the back and forth of the sumbatan and name-calling, and rightfully so. It's exhausting as fuck.

However, we can't just erase the concept of utang na loob from our memory. Now why is that? Well, simply put, it's been a part of the Filipino psyche for hundreds of years now. We teach it. We live by it. We cultivate it. We endure because of it. We are told that we, the perceived "debtee," are not necessarily obligated to give anything in return. Nor is the "debtor" obligated to demand a certain form of payment or reciprocity. A profound exchange takes place here. And amidst the animosity toward utang na loob today, that shouldn't take away from its value to our people.


Social distancing was, in fact, a good example of direct utang na loob.

Photo by Juanito Torres.

We may look for ways to challenge this by diminishing it and saying, "It's simply a toxic Filipino thing." In our inability to grasp its true essence, we oftentimes invalidate its existence. "Other nations don't have this." "Filipinos are still stuck in the past."

This is ours. Translate this concept in other languages and see how it works (it doesn't). We reduce it to semantics. Terms like "debt of the inside" or "debt of gratitude" come to mind when we think of its translations, but these still fail to describe utang na loob as an overarching Filipino virtue.

See, utang na loob is part of a special collection of inherently Filipino virtues, together with kagandahang-loob, pakikiramdam, hiya, and lakas-ng-loob/bahala na. Professor Jeremiah Reyes, who has taught in the Department of Philosophy at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, has conducted extensive research on Filipino virtue ethics. He says that the Filipino people have two foundational concepts: the first is loob, which is often misconstrued as "inside" in the English language, is better understood as "relational will." The second, kapwa (a shared personhood or shared self), often misinterpreted as "other person," really means "together with the person." All these are meant to preserve and strengthen our relationships with our fellow Filipinos. Utang na loob means that we recognize the kagandahang loob from the kapwa and respond to it with the same kindness extended to us.

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In "The Concept of Utang Na Loob in the Philippines: Utang Na Loob Scale," researchers from Colegio de San Juan de Letran in Manila concluded the five dimensions of utang na loob in our relationships: Closeness, Obligation, Reciprocity, Respect, and Satisfaction.

Closeness suggests a "request or plea being asked by one of another in the same shared inner self or a common humanity." Obligation, on the other hand, is self-imposed in utang na loob. Thus, we oblige ourselves because it is a moral requirement in our culture. Reciprocity, meanwhile, happens here because it is a "manner of broadening the ideas which were passed unto you by authorities." A good example of this is how religion was inculcated in us by missionaries, which we then spread to our own people (part of colonial indoctrination, yes). There's also the element of Respect, which is the same personality attitude that we obtain when we connect with other people. Satisfaction is achieved in the utang-na-loob dynamic when it satisfies the kapwa structure. All these are present in utang na loob.

Researchers Angelo Miguel P. Gundran, John Rovin J. Manalo, Pauline Anne S. Soriano, Rance Louise O. Cagsawa, and Geselle C. Manguiat-Borlongan concluded that the utang-na-loob relationship "oaths to embrace other people’s ideas even if it differs from ours. We also consider that this relationship is part of ourselves and therefore, we have a sense of shared 'kapwa.' (Gratitude and Consideration) This means that we show appreciation for and return kindness to others by carefully thinking about it. When we are grateful for something, we have the tendency to reciprocate or return what has been given to us. Also, we consider the kind of help that has been offered to us and that in return, we give it back."


They continued: "(Give and take) This means that we have established mutual recognition and that; we compromise and are willing to accept and offer something for each other. Giving out something for others is also our first and foremost characteristic as a Filipino; that is, when we give something, we do not always expect something in return."


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Utang na loob, we may argue, represents the strength of the Filipino character.

Photo by Shutterstock.

Of course, the place from where a debtor operates certainly matters in this conversation, too. Dr. Sheldon Ives Agaton, who is a Doctor of Philosophy and who teaches at Eastern Visayas State University, sees four vantage points in Filipino relationships.

There's the indirect utang na loob. This is often associated with our elected politicians. The fact that they were voted into position there means a duty to the people to do right by them (ideally). Then there's direct utang na loob, which happens when we are indebted to a person or institution for helping us in our hour of need. This means that, even without an aggregator, they have been prompted to offer assistance, like how good parents provide for us without asking for much in return. Unintentional utang na loob, on the other hand, is a vantage that means the assistance is spontaneous and deliberately made. This is evident when a community takes on refugees from another.

But then there's the induced or intentional utang na loob. This is when the debtor maliciously extends help for the sake of creating a feeling of indebtedness between them and the debtee. It practically puts the debtee in the "inferior" position. This is a great injustice, seeing as though the debtee has no choice but to bend to the debtor's demands. Think of how one person in power appoints a random friend to do their bidding. They have no choice but to submit to the appointer's whims.

But the moment utang na loob is done in bad faith, that is when it loses its true meaning. Dr. Anna Cristina Tuazon, a Clinical Psychology Professor at University of the Philippines-Diliman, summed it up beautifully in her Safe Spaces column just last year. This was around the time the debates against utang na loob were exacerbated after a random viral post (that, for the death of me, I can't remember).


"True utang na loob is manifested freely, as an expression of a person’s malasakit for someone who has provided malasakit to them. Not all acts of malasakit garner utang na loob from the recipient; expecting such reciprocity would mean that it was not a true act of malasakit. Therefore, utang na loob cannot be forced."

We are compelled to honor utang na loob because it is an inherent quality of the Filipino pysche. Are we condemned to it? Well, the short answer is yes, I'd say.

Photo by courtesy of Salcedo Auctions.

While there are people (from some toxic parental figures and bosses to bad agents in the state who recklessly shift the blame to us, the individual, when criticized) who exploit this, they shouldn't diminish the beauty of utang na loob in our culture. Our people, for centuries, have been broken up by imperialism, colonialism, unjust power dynamics, and their subsequent "neo-" variations and influences. We are only united by our shared understanding of the power of collectivism, which utang na loob stems from. Individualism has never been the solution.

Individualism in modern-day Philippines, or the "kanya-kanya" mentality, is a direct affront to the collectivism that has shaped our patrimony. In times of crisis, those of us who left in torn communities only had each other. We relied on the kindness and generosity of our fellow Filipino. Utang na loob was always one of our great social contracts. It's emblematic of the idealism of our people. The word utang may be there, but, in this case, it was never meant to be paid. We were never meant to return the favor. We are only asked to return that same goodness to our fellow Filipino when need be. In good faith, this Filipino concept can be a powerful thing that can help us understand our identity and our connections in much deeper ways. Utang na loob is a priceless commodity that encourages social responsibility and fosters the spirit in our communities.

The Filipino people, in their shared struggles under these subaltern realities, have long relied on this intrinsic virtue for our survival. This unquantifiable, unpayable debt of ours is rooted, of all things, in our great Filipino-ness, best exemplified in our ideas about the power of the kapwa and our acts of care, inherited from generations passed. These bonds have long been tied to the sustenance of our being. Utang na loob is more than just a system of obligation. It is, and always has been, by default, a part of the Filipino's way of life.


  • The Concept of Utang Na Loob in the Philippines: Utang Na Loob Scale
  • Back to Indigeneity: The Philosophy of Loób and Kapwa as Education’s Past and Future
  • Towards a Practical and Empirically Grounded Account of Útangna-loób as a Filipino Virtue
  • Loób and Kapwa: An Introduction to a Filipino Virtue Ethics
  • Vantage Points of Utang Na Loob

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About The Author
Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is a Filipino cultural critic, editor, and essayist. He writes about art, books, travel, people, current events, and all the magic in between. His past work in film and media can be found on PeopleAsia Magazine, The Philippine Star, MANILA BULLETIN, and IMDB.
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