In 2007, the journalist Adam Gopnik wrote a long essay on Philip K. Dick in which he proposed that all of Dick’s novels are structured around the same question: “What is human?” Sure enough, this question hangs over every chapter of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In a way, the other four themes of the novel represent four different ways of answering this question (for example, humans are human because they’re capable of making memories; because they alter their environments; because they can buy and sell things, etc.).
Even though there are many ways to answer the question, “What makes us human?”, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is most interested in one potential answer—humans are human because they’re capable of feeling empathy. (The word “empathy” appears nearly 100 times in the book.) In the future, police officers distinguish between humans and androids by administering the Voigt-Kampff test, which is designed to measure one’s empathetic reaction to a series of emotional situations. Humans are supposed to respond by displaying empathy—i.e., they’re supposed to feel a sense of connection to the people or animals in the hypothetical situations—while androids are supposed to respond with a sense of coldness that borders on psychopathy.
The disturbing “joke” of Do Androids Dream is that, for all the talk about the importance of empathy, there doesn’t seem to be very much of it going around. The human characters in the novel are cold and short with one another, even when they’re friends or spouses. Rick Deckard, the novel’s protagonist, is distant with his wife, Iran, and on the one occasion that he shows romantic interest in another woman, Rachel Rosen, his interest is quickly replaced by disgust. Then there are other characters, such as Philip Resch, who are technically human, but are also cruel and totally lacking in empathy. On the flip side, the androids in the novel, such as Pris Stratton, show occasional signs of an emotional connection to other androids. After Pris learns that one of her friends has been “retired”—i.e., murdered by Rick Deckard—she’s devastated.
One of Dick’s most provocative points about empathy and human nature is that empathy isn’t an emotional reaction at all—rather, it’s a way of uniting humans together against some kind of “other.” In Dick’s vision of the future, millions of people subscribe to a mysterious religion called Mercerism, which requires its members to grip an “empathy box” that enables them to experience the sensations and feelings of their fellow human beings. As the android Irmgard Baty perceptively points out, the purpose of the empathy box isn’t to make human beings kinder or more sensitive—if it is, then the empathy box has clearly failed. Rather, the purpose of the box is to remind human beings that they have a common identity (even if this identity is an illusion) and that they are different from—and superior to—androids. This is a disturbing idea, because it suggests that humans can only respond to Dick’s question, “What is human?”, with a vague and incomplete answer: “Not an android.” It’s as if in the future—a world in which there’s scarcely any empathy left—humans have begun hunting and killing androids in a desperate attempt to remind themselves of their own humanity. The irony, in short, is that humans confirm their humanity—their empathy—by shooting androids, which is just about the most un-empathetic act imaginable.
This doesn’t necessarily prove that humans are incapable of empathy—only that there’s nothing automatically empathetic about being a human being. In the end, then, Dick simply doesn’t have a good answer to his own question. By the same token, the characters in his novel are all trying, in one way or another, to understand what it means to be human, and coming up short. But in Dick’s futuristic world—where humans are on the verge of extinction, and where an android can, for all intents and purposes, be human—it becomes increasingly important to try to understand what it means to be human.
Humanity, Androids, and Empathy ThemeTracker
Humanity, Androids, and Empathy Quotes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
As he started toward his car Barbour called after him hurriedly, "Um, I won't say anything to anybody here in the building."
Pausing, Rick started to say thanks. But then something of the despair that Iran had been talking about tapped him on the shoulder and he said, "I don't know; maybe it doesn't make any difference."
"But they'll look down on you. Not all of them, but some. You know how people are about not taking care of an animal; they consider it immoral and anti-empathic. I mean, technically it's not a crime like it was right after WWT. But the feeling's still there."
He found himself, instead, as always before, entering into the landscape of drab hill, drab sky. And at the same time he no longer witnessed the climb of the elderly man. His own feet now scraped, sought purchase, among the familiar loose stones; he felt the same old painful, irregular roughness beneath his feet and once again smelled the acrid haze of the sky — not Earth's sky but that of some place alien, distant, and yet, by means of the empathy box, instantly available.
Empathy, he once had decided, must be limited to herbivores or anyhow omnivores who could depart from a meat diet. Because, ultimately, the emphatic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated. As in the fusion withMercer, everyone ascended together or, when the cycle had come to an end, fell together into the trough of the tomb world. Oddly, it resembled a sort of biological insurance, but double-edged. As long as some creature experienced joy, then the condition for all other creatures included a fragment of joy. However, if any living being suffered, then for all the rest the shadow could not be entirely cast off. A herd animal such as man would acquire a higher survival factor through this; an owl or a cobra would be destroyed.
Evidently the humanoid robot constituted a solitary predator.
"Babyhide," Rick said. He stroked the black leather surface of the briefcase. "One hundred percent genuine human babyhide." He saw the two dial indicators gyrate frantically. But only after a pause. The reaction had come, but too late. He knew the reaction period down to a fraction of a second, the correct reaction period; there should have been none.
"Thanks, Miss Rosen," he said, and gathered together the equipment again; he had concluded his retesting. "That's all."
"You're leaving?" Rachael asked.
"Yes," he said. "I'm satisfied."
To Eldon Rosen, who slumped morosely by the door of the room, he said, "Does she know?" Sometimes they didn't; false memories had been tried various times, generally in the mistaken idea that through them reactions to testing would be altered.
Eldon Rosen said, "No. We programmed her completely.”
“But I think toward the end she suspected." To the girl he said, "You guessed when he asked for one more try."
Pale, Rachael nodded fixedly.
"An android," he said, "doesn't care what happens to any other android. That's one of the indications we look for."
"Then," Miss Luft said, "you must be an android."
That stopped him; he stared at her.
"Because," she continued, "Your job is to kill them, isn't it? You're what they call — " She tried to remember.
"A bounty hunter," Rick said. "But I'm not an android."
"This test you want to give me." Her voice, now, had begun to return. "Have you taken it?"
Garland said, "That damn fool Resch."
"He actually doesn't know?"
"He doesn't know; he doesn't suspect; he doesn't have the slightest idea. Otherwise he couldn't live out a life as a bounty hunter, a human occupation — hardly an android occupation." Garland gestured toward Rick's briefcase. "Those other carbons, the other suspects you're supposed to test and retire. I know them all." He paused, then said, "We all came here together on the same ship from Mars. Not Resch; he stayed behind another week, receiving the synthetic memory system." He was silent, then.
Or rather it was silent.
"You androids," Rick said, "don't exactly cover for each other in times of stress."
Garland snapped, "I think you're right; it would seem we lack a specific talent you humans possess. I believe it's called empathy."
Preoccupied, Phil Resch drove by reflex; his progressively more gloomy train of thought continued to dominate his attention. "Listen, Deckard," he said suddenly. "After we retire Luba Luft — I want you to — " His voice, husky and tormented,broke off. "You know. Give me the Boneli test or that empathy scale you have. To see about me."
"We can worry about that later," Rick said evasively. "You don't want me to take it, do you?" Phil Resch glanced at him with acute comprehension. "I guess you know what the results will be; Garland must have told you something. Facts which I don't know."
"I see a pattern. The way you killed Garland and then the way you killed Luba. You don't kill the way I do; you don't try to — Hell," he said, "I know what it is. You like to kill. All you need is a pretext. If you had a pretext you'd kill me. That's why you picked up on the possibility of Garland being an android; it made him available for being killed.”
"If it's love toward a woman or an android imitation, it's sex. Wake up and face yourself, Deckard. You wanted to go to bed with a female type of android — nothing more, nothing less. I felt that way, on one occasion. When I had just started bounty hunting. Don't let it get you down; you'll heal. What's happened is that you've got your order reversed. Don't kill her—or be present when she's killed — and then feel physically attracted. Do it the other way."
"The chickenhead," Pris said, "likes me."
"Don't call him that, Pris," Irmgard said; she gave Isidore a look of compassion. "Think what he could call you."
"Maybe they did just what we're doing," Roy Baty said. "Confided in, trusted, one given human being who they believed was different. As you said, special."
"We don't know that," Irmgard said. "That's only a conjecture. I think they, they — " She gestured. "Walked around. Sang from a stage like Luba. We trust — I'll tell you what we trust that fouls us up, Roy; it's our goddamn superior intelligence!" She glared at her husband, her small, high breasts rising and falling rapidly. "We're so smart — Roy, you're doing it right now; goddamn you, you're doing it now!"
Rick said, "I took a test, one question, and verified it; I've begun to empathize with androids, and look what that means. You said it this morning yourself. 'Those poor andys.' So you know what I'm talking about. That's why I bought the goat. I never felt like that before. Maybe it could be a depression, like you get. I can understand now how you suffer when you're depressed; I always thought you liked it and I thought you could have snapped yourself out any time, if not alone then by means of the mood organ. But when you get that depressed you don't care. Apathy, because you've lost a sense of worth. It doesn't matter whether you feel better because if you have no worth — "
"What about your job?" Her tone jabbed at him; he blinked. "Your job," Iran repeated. "What are the monthly payments on the goat?" She held out her hand; reflexively he got out the contract which he had signed, passed it to her.
In addition, this android stole, and experimented with, various mind-fusing drugs, claiming when caught that it hoped to promote in androids a group experience similar to that of Mercerism, which it pointed out remains unavailable to androids.
The account had a pathetic quality. A rough, cold android, hoping to undergo an experience from which, due to a deliberately built-in defect, it remained excluded. But he could not work up much concern for Roy Baty; he caught, from Dave's jottings, a repellent quality hanging about this particular android.
Putting his laser tube away Rick said, "I can't do what Phil Resch said." He snapped the motor back on, and a moment later they had taken off again.
"If you're ever going to do it," Rachael said, "do it now. Don't make me wait."
"I'm not going to kill you." He steered the car in the direction of downtown San Francisco once again. "Your car's at the St. Francis, isn't it? I'll let you off there and you can head for Seattle." That ended what he had to say; he drove in silence.
"Thanks for not killing me," Rachael said presently.
"Hell, as you said you've only got two years of life left, anyhow. And I've got fifty. I'll live twenty-five times as long as you."
"No, it's that empathy," Irmgard said vigorously. Fists clenched, she roved into the kitchen, up to Isidore. "Isn't it a way of proving that humans can do something we can't do? Because without the Mercer experience we just have your word that you feel this empathy business, this shared, group thing. How's the spider?"
"Rick," she said, "I have to tell you something. I'm sorry. The goat is dead."
For some reason it did not surprise him; it only made him feel worse, a quantitative addition to the weight shrinking him from every side. "I think there's a guarantee in the contract," he said. "If it gets sick within ninety days the dealer — "
"It didn't get sick. Someone" — Iran cleared her throat and went on huskily — "someone came here, got the goat out of its cage, and dragged it to the edge of the roof."
"And pushed it off?" he said.
"Yes." She nodded.
"Did you see who did it?"
"I saw her very clearly," Iran said. "Barbour was still up here fooling around; he came down to get me and we called the police, but by then the animal was dead and she had left. A small young-looking girl with dark hair and large black eyes, very thin. Wearing a long fishscale coat. She had a mail-pouch purse. And she made no effort to keep us from seeing her. As if she didn't care."
It would have been rewarding to talk to Dave, he decided. Dave would have approved what I did. But also he would have understood the other part, which I don't think even Mercer comprehends. For Mercer everything is easy, he thought, because Mercer accepts everything. Nothing is alien to him. But what I've done, he thought; that's become alien to me. In fact everything about me has become unnatural; I've become an unnatural self.
I'm a special, he thought. Something has happened to me. Like the chickenhead Isidore and his spider; what happened to him is happening to me. Did Mercer arrange it? But I'm Mercer. I arranged it; I found the toad. Found it because I see through Mercer's eyes.
"Do you want to use the mood organ? To feel better? You always have gotten a lot out of it, more than I ever have."
"I'll be okay." He shook his head, as if trying to clear it, still bewildered. "The spider Mercer gave the chickenhead, Isidore; it probably was artificial, too. But it doesn't matter. The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are."