Philip K. Dick sets up empathy as a primary theme of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? As we learn through Rick Deckard, an automatic empathic response is the stark difference between humans and androids. But, unlike his predilection for exposition, Dick does not hit readers over the head with a straightforward presentation of empathy versus apathy. Rather, the author creates a highly nuanced argument when consulting the question (and presence) of empathy in both humans and androids. I guess this is what struck me as the best part of the novel — the layers that surround this question.
Most pivotal is the fact that Dick infuses doubt into his novel. That is, empathy is not a black-and-white thing. Almost like the concept of time, it is a natural occurrence that has been warped and moored into a rigid social construct.
First, I think it’s interesting that empathy is demanded and standardized in the setting of the novel. Empathy is seen not as a natural and bonding response but rather as a mandatory one. For the humans who remain on Earth, empathy is used to determine that one is normal; a lack of empathy is seen not as odd but suspect. This holds true in today’s society, as sociopaths are outcasts regarded with suspicion and fear. But Dick takes the idea one step farther by virtually forcing all humans within his universe to constantly prove their empathic response. Doing so could either tarnish it or render it disingenuous — essentially taking away its inherent value as an automatic response.
This is further reflected in the fact that empathy is warped into a status symbol in the form of owning and caring for animals. Deckard’s ennui stems partly from the fact that he does not have a pet to care for; his lack of a real animal diminishes his social status and also opens himself and his wife up to the suspicion of their neighbors. Yet the use of empathy as a status symbol is reflected in the fact that owning a pet is a huge financial burden. There is a scarcity of animals on Earth, and even commonplace creatures like goats cost an exorbitant sum. The Androids universe is one in which humans must literally pay a price in order to prove their empathic response.
The systematic usage of empathy is still further underscored by the fact that Deckard and the other bounty hunters use the Voigt-Kampff test to identify androids. It’s almost a manipulation of the emotion to meet human need. The test operates as a Turing Test variation, but it departs from Turing’s original in the fact that it tests the how of the response. There’s also an irony to the fact that a successful test discerns a lack of empathy in androids — the tool bounty hunters need to “retire” the machines with zero sense of empathy or even guilt.
So what happens when, like Phil Resch, a human displays an android-like lack of empathy? Personally, I totally fell for the plot twist in which Dick leads the reader on for 10 pages or so into thinking that Resch was an andy. When Deckard tells Garland that “‘you androids … don’t exactly cover for each other in times of stress,”‘ it almost feels like a foreshadow to Resch’s total lack of empathy — especially in the midst of android retirement. The fact that Resch is able to delay his empathic response (or dismiss it entirely) makes him akin to an android, even after the test proves his humanity. Dick spends a good part of a pivotal scene building this case up, only to sharply dismiss it. Thus, empathy is not a straightforward case of haves and have-nots.
“‘I think you’re right; it would seem we lack a specific talent you humans possess,'” Garland tells Deckard. ‘”I believe it’s called empathy.'” Here’s a direct contradiction to a subtle distinction Dick set up earlier. Deckard tells us that, though delayed, androids still experience and exhibit some form of an empathic response. Pris contradicts Deckard’s theory of ‘every android for himself’ when she pines for the companionship of her “best friends.” Yet Garland presents an opposing point of view: an android himself, he asserts that his kind does not feel any form of empathy. Irmgard reinforces this when she notes that “emotional acceptance” is a foreign concept to androids yet vital to humans like Isidore.
There are exceptions to every rule, and Dick seems to encourage us to spend the better part of the novel second-guessing, like Deckard, this supposedly stark distinction.