Debts of Good Will and Interpersonal Justice
Leonardo D. de Castro
Debts of gratitude are, in general, incurred by people who receive help or favors from others. But to say that a person has a debt of gratitude is not merely to say that he should be thankful for the assistance given. The indebtedness concerned is not confined to actual benefits received. In recognizing a debt of gratitude, one also recognizes the good will manifested by the benefactor in providing assistance or granting a favor.
For this reason, this paper refers to "debts of good will" instead of "debts of gratitude." The contention is that the former terminology focuses attention on important features of the concept that the words "debt of gratitude" fail to capture.
Another reason for the use of the preferred term in this paper is that the equivalent of "good will" in the Filipino language kagandahang loob has an important significance in related ethical theory. The analysis of ethical concepts cannot be divorced from the cultural context. This paper makes the assumption that it proceeds within the framework of Filipino culture. It is that culture which informs the understanding of meanings and expectations associated with debts of good will.
Initially, the paper attempts to clarify essential features of a debt of good will by making a comparison with material debts such as those incurred when bank loans are acquired. The comparison attempts to draw out the attributes of a debt of good will that are not ordinarily associated with purely material debts.
On the basis of the features thus identified, the paper proceeds to examine debts of good will in relation to the rights and obligations which they may be said to give rise to. The paper also argues that the temptation to understand debts of good will purely in terms of justice has to be resisted.
Debts of good will have significant features that are not present in formal debts such as those involving money or material goods with monetary value.
Indebtedness to a bank arises from an institutional transaction governed by explicit policies and regulations. The regulations indicate who may borrow money, what collateral or guarantee is required, the amount of money that may be borrowed, the date when payment is due, as well as other terms concerning the use and repayment of the loan. Altogether, the terms define the obligations of the borrower and the corresponding rights of the lender.
Even before any transaction of this sort is entered into, prospective borrowers can be informed of the terms of indebtedness. The terms usually are advertized and an interested person can see that he or she is entitled to borrow provided the requirements are met. In the event a loan application is not approved, one may appeal by invoking provisions of prevailing regulations or policies. The approval of a loan application generally is not regarded as a personal favor granted by the bank official concerned. Borrowing and paying form part of an institution governed by rules and regulations indicating the requirements for approval and the grounds for disapproval. Hence there should not be any need for a borrower to appeal to a bank officer's exercise of personal prerogative in order to obtain a loan.
A comparison with monetary debts perhaps is one of the reasons why researchers have sought to explain debts of good will purely in terms of contractual transactions. (1) But the conditions for incurring a debt of good will are not governed by explicit rules and regulations.
It would be more useful to be guided by the differences rather than the similarities between these two types of indebtedness.
Debts of good will
One feature that clearly sets a debt of good will apart from contractual monetary debts is that it is not governed by written or formal rules and regulations. A debt of good will derives its meaning from the traditional roles associated with debtors and "lenders" within a particular socio-cultural context. But there are no definite guidelines that indicate the rights and obligations of benefactors and beneficiaries.
Different socio-cultural contexts provide varying ways of understanding these debts. They also define the different circumstances under which people incur such debts and repay them.
For the purposes of this paper, the conceptual infrastructure is provided by an understanding of debts of good will prevalent in Filipino society. It cannot be presumed that this understanding is unique. But the qualification is made anyway if only to emphasize that there is not only one concept of debt of good will that has universal applicability.
"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.
A debt of good will is incurred when a person becomes the beneficiary of significant assistance or favor given by another. It is not merely the receipt of the assistance or favor that puts the recipient in a position of indebtedness. For if that were the case, the indebtedness would be merely for the material "gift" received. The debt would be recognized as a material debt rather than as a debt of good will.
It is also a feature of debts of good will that they are incurred when the beneficiary is in acute need of the assistance given or favor granted. The debt could then be appreciated as one of good will because, by catering to another person's pressing need, the benefactor is able to express positive feelings towards the beneficiary. There is not only a giving of help. The act of helping serves as a vehicle for the expression of sympathy or concern. The benefactor is not only giving something that is external to him. In a manner of speaking, he is also able to give of himself.
Debt of good will as personal
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.
When a person borrows money from a bank whose business it is to gain financially from the transaction, he incurs material indebtedness. By borrowing money, he puts himself under an obligation to pay the amount borrowed plus interest gained. The obligation is quantifiable, and is determined by the terms of the financial transaction. By defining the obligations of the borrower and the rights of the lender, the terms of the transaction also determine the moment when those obligations and rights are satisfied and thereby dissolved.
When a bank loan has been repaid, it can be said with confidence that the borrower has complied with his obligations. The debt does not go beyond the amount indicated in the terms of the transaction. When a bank lends money, it makes known everything that is required of the borrower for the loan to be considered paid. The terms of the loan agreement define the exact nature of the transaction without having to make any references to feelings of sympathy or concern that may be the primary considerations in giving personal aid.
In cases of bank loans, it would not make sense to talk about a debt of good will. One reason is that a debt of good will is something owed for a favor received. But the bank is not doing the borrower a favor. It is making money for itself out of the transaction. In a sense, it could be gaining more out of the loan than the borrower himself.
The situation is different when a person borrows money from a neighbor who usually is not engaged in the business of lending money. If the neighbor has no personal or financial interest in lending, i.e., if he has nothing personally or financially to gain from the transaction, he is giving more than the amount of money that he is making available to the borrower.
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.
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?
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.
Good will as kagandahang loob
In cases of debts of good will, it is the benefactor's kagandahang loob (good will) that creates the situation of indebtedness.
An act can be considered to convey kagandahang loob only if it is done out of kusang loob (roughly, free will). And an act can only be considered to have been done out of kusang loob if the agent (1) is not acting under external compulsion, (2) is motivated by positive feelings (e.g. charity, love or sympathy) towards the beneficiary, and (3) is not motivated by the anticipation of reward. (2)
It is important for the agent to be acting without external compulsion because the desire to benefit others must arise as an unsolicited initiative. The good will must flow spontaneously and without the agent having to be told to do what needs to be done. Willingness to comply with the expectations of others would not suffice. What is important for the kagandahang loob is that beneficial acts be initiated by the agent without having to be solicited by others.
An agent who is motivated purely by a sense of duty does not act out of kusang loob. He must be motivated by genuine feelings for the beneficiaries of his actions. Thus there is a sharp contrast with the Kantian concept of duty and moral worth. For the agent needs to be motivated by such emotions as pity, sympathy, love, and charity. There can be no kagandahang loob if a person performs his duties without positive emotional involvement.
Actions done in anticipation of reward or personal gain are not done out of kusang loob. 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.
The three conditions identified constitute the necessary requirements for kusang loob and kagandahang loob. It is often said that, if an agent could not comply with these conditions in doing something, it might be better for that thing not to be done at all, no matter how beneficial it might be. Hence, the conveyance of kagandahang loob could be more valuable than the benefits arising from the altruistic act.
This characterization of kagandahang loob determines how debts of good will ought to be understood. On the basis of this understanding, we can make some inferences regarding the rights that can be ascribed to the benefactor and the obligations that can be ascribed to the beneficiary when they form part of a debt-of-good-will relationship.
Relationship between benefactor and beneficiary
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.
This having been said, it does not follow that there is no obligation on the part of the benefactor to pay his debt. If there is a debt at all, then there is something that needs to be paid. But the indebtedness is not for the material benefits gained. It is for the good will. The kagandahang loob needs to be returned. Thus it would seem that the beneficiary has an obligation to return the kagandahang loob.
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?
A way out of this dilemma is to see the obligation to pay the debt as a self-imposed one. Indeed, this appears to follow from the premise that the benefactor does not have a right to extract payment. If the benefactor cannot demand payment, to whom would the debt be owed? In a way, the debt is owed to the benefactor but only in the sense that he stands to benefit from the payment.
If the interpretation holds that the obligation is self-imposed, then the one to whom the debt is owed is the original beneficiary 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 for the absence of external compulsion.
Debts of ill will
Robert Nozick has expresssed misgivings about creating a duty to repay unsolicited favors: "One cannot, whatever one's purposes, just act so as to give people benefits and then demand (or seize) payment." (3) It is interesting to see how valid this fear could be in relation to debts of good will incurred within a context of personal favors given to people in dire need.
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.
One can also cite the example of favors given by unscrupulous politicians aiming to create relationships of indebtedness that can be manipulated to establish political allegiance. Due mainly to power and influence associated with key positions, political personalities find many opportunities to build up relationships of indebtedness. But not all such indebtedness could readily be construed as debts of good will.
First of all, the acts of beneficence could flow out of a motivation to enhance one's political ambitions. When an individual's course of action is determined by political ambitions, he could not be acting out of a genuine concern solely for the welfare of the beneficiary.
Moreover, the politician concerned could be acting out a role that is required of him as a public official. If so, the beneficial action could be a duty or an obligation assigned to his particular office. Failure to perform the beneficial action means non-compliance by the politician concerned with public responsibility. If a public official is only doing what he has a duty to do in the first place, one need not ascribe to him a kagandahang loob which establishes a duty of reciprocation on the part of beneficiaries. It is not important that the benefits received could have come at a moment so opportune as to enable the beneficiary to overcome a truly precarious predicament. He is not personally indebted to the public official merely because that particular official was instrumental in implementing a course of action that benefited him. When a public official performs his obligations to his constituencies he acts out an obligatory role. He is acting in an official rather than a personal capacity. Hence, kagandahang loob need not be ascribed to the individual person.
If a public official is efficient in that role, perhaps his constituencies ought to be thankful and appreciative. But the expression of gratitude or appreciation under such circumstances need not be associated with having a debt of good will.
When a person deliberately manipulates circumstances in order to establish enslaving relationships of indebtedness, what he truly creates are "debts of ill will." If debts of good will are characterized in terms of the kagandahang loob conveyed by the benefactor, debts of ill will are marked by the ill will of scheming manipulators.
Debts of good will and interpsersonal justice
The perverted version of debts of good will raises troubling possibilities that make it tempting to interpret debt-of-good-will relationships solely in terms of a concept of interpersonal justice.
Analysis in terms of justice would call attention to the importance of fairness in calculating the value of benefits exchanged. This would also alert people to the vulnerability of persons in debt (of ill will) to exploitation.
However, this type of exercise could have a distorting effect on the way in which we understand debts of good will. A purely justice-based analysis has to show that it can take into account the important requirements of kagandahang loob.
It is true that debts of good will are about some forms of justice. They involve relationships between people in need and people able to provide succor. They refer to giving due recognition to people willing to make sacrifices for their fellowmen. They pertain to fairness in dealing with others. They are about interpersonal justice. But it would be unfair to reduce all talk about debts of good will to talk about justice alone.
(1) Cf. Mary R. Hollnsteiner, "Reciprocity in Lowland Philippines," sa Frank Lynch and Alfonso de Guzman II, ed., Four Readings on Philippine Values, IPC Papers No. 2, 3rd ed. (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University, 1970) pp. 65-88 and Charles R. Kaut, "Utang na Loob: A System of Contractual Obligation Among Tagalogs," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 17-3 (1961), pp. 65-88.
(2) Cf. Leonardo D. de Castro, "Transporting Values by Technology Transfer," Bioethics, XI - 3&4, p. 202.
(3) Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), p. 95.