Empathy in Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep)and Slaughterhouse-Five
"What does it mean to be human?" This is a question that is often asked in literary works. Is it our intelligence that separates us from being like any other animal on this planet or is it something else? Perhaps it is our ability to feel empathy for other humans and other forms of life. If this is so, then how is it that we also have violence and wars where humans hurt and kill other humans? How is it that humans can hurt animals without a second thought, if it's our ability to feel empathy that separates us from them? Both Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut explore these questions in their novels Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) and Slaughterhouse-Five. Dick's novel, Blade Runner, is a science fiction novel, while Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five is based partly on the author's real life experiences in World War II, but both authors seem to agree that more than anything else, it is the ability to feel empathy which defines what it is to be human. Without the ability to feel empathy for another life form, a person is more a machine than a human, no matter how intelligent he or she is.
Blade Runner takes place in the year 2021. A nuclear war, World War Terminus, had rendered Earth a wasteland. Most of the people who survived the war had emigrated to colonies on Mars to escape the deteriorating atmosphere of Earth. To encourage people to emigrate from Earth, the U.N. is offering android slaves to everyone who emigrate. Still, there are thousands who choose to stay behind despite being slowly contaminated by radioactive fallout. Most of the animals on Earth had died out, and in some cases, entire species have become extinct. For this reason, owning an animal has become a status symbol on Earth and everyone is expected take care of at least one animal. Everyone is a follower of Mercerism, which encourages people to feel empathy for others and for animals. In this manner, everyone on Earth survives without feeling that he or she is alone. The main character of Blade Runner is Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter for the Los Angeles police department. Several androids had killed their owners on Mars and had escaped to Earth. The first bounty hunter that went after them managed to "retire" two before being put in the hospital himself. It was up to Deckard to destroy the remaining six. Unfortunately, the androids who escaped were the new Nexus-6 types, which looked and acted exactly like real humans. They were even more intelligent than most humans. The only way to tell them apart from real humans is by measuring the amount of empathy they can feel, which isn't as great as humans. While hunting these rouge androids, Deckard's whole perception of what it is to be human gets questioned and he begins to wonder if there is that much difference between a human and an android.