Transcendent Empathy: Veganism, Slavery, and the Ethics of Androids in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

By Doctor Comrade

Philip K. Dick was one of the most prolific science-fiction novelists of the twentieth century. In his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the inspiration for the film Blade Runner, Dick presents a dystopian vision of Earth that is crumbling in the aftermath of an atomic war. To incentivize colonization of other planets in the solar system, the two dominant Earth governments, the United States and the Soviet Union, offer androids to any able-bodied person who emigrated from Earth. As the androids became increasingly sophisticated, in both speech and their startlingly similar appearance to humans, their existence on Earth was banned. Any androids that fled from the colonies back to Earth were pursued by bounty hunters, whose only tools to identify androids came in the form of personality tests. Rick Deckard, a second-rate bounty hunter, is the main protagonist of the book, and is given the task of hunting six escaped androids in San Francisco. By cleverly administering these personality tests, or inferring from the androids’ reactions to otherwise normal interactions, Deckard detects that the androids lack the capacity to feel empathy, which is the telltale sign of an android’s identity. When he identifies an android, he “retires” it by shooting it with a laser gun. Dick’s relatively straightforward premise calls to mind the equally philosophical work of Isaac Asimov, another famous sci-fi writer, who authored books such as I, Robot, and who also explored the nature of sentience, emotion, and artificial intelligence. A constant theme in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the omnipresent question about the morality of retiring androids, the essence of empathy, and the power to destroy life.

Dick presents empathy as the centerpiece for all discussions of morality. For bounty hunters like Deckard, what makes androids so dangerous is their apparent inability to feel empathy. When the androids travel to Earth, they usually do so after murdering their human masters in attempts to flee, which seems to illustrate a quasi-sociopathic nature inborn to all artificial intelligence due to a “deliberately built-in defect” (185). The humans of Earth, on the other hand, are united by a religion called Mercerism, which they experience through “fusion,” the process of joining together through a computer simulation. When humans enter the simulation, they empathize with their suffering savior, Wilbur Mercer, and they feel the emotions of all the other people in the simulation. This teaches them empathy and fellow feeling, which redeems them in the face of utter destruction on Earth, and the suffering of Mercer mirrors the Passion of the Christ in our own Christian theology.

Because empathy forms the backbone of Mercerism and the ethics of Dick’s world, the author makes a compelling series of arguments that seem to be in favor of what we would call veganism. Veganism, or the complete abstention from usage of animal products including meat, dairy, and leather, seems to be a significant portion of the lifestyle for humans who remain on Earth. Dick, through Deckard, observes that:

“Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnids. For one thing, the empathic faculty probably required an unimpaired group instinct; a solitary organism, such as a spider, would have no use for it; in fact it would tend to abort a spider’s ability to survive. It would make him conscious of the desire to live on the part of his prey. Hence all predators, even highly developed mammals such as cats, would starve.

Empathy, he once had decided, must be limited to herbivores or anyhow omnivores who could depart from a meat diet. Because, ultimately, the empathic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated.... 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” (30-31).

Dick completes this line of thinking with Deckard's inner monologue when he asserts, "Evidently the humanoid robot constituted a solitary predator. Rick liked to think of them that way; it made his job palatable."

In this way, Dick presents three arguments in favor of veganism: the argument from empathy, the argument from survivability, and the argument from slavery. With regards to the empathy, Dick argues that the "empathic gift," which only humans have been given, should prevent humans from acting as predators. Because humans can uniquely perceive the joy--and its converse, suffering--of other creatures, they should abstain from killing them and eating their meat. Moreover, beyond joy, humans can experience the will to live in themselves and other creatures. Through joy, suffering, and the will to live, empathy builds connections between species, "between the hunter and victim."

When I encounter people who are hostile to vegan ideology, they often tell me that eating meat is "natural." Dick has cleverly inverted this claim, illustrating that eating meat actually violates humanity's natural inclination towards empathy. To take this argument a step farther, humanity is the only species with a predisposition towards empathy, and therefore the only species which consciously chooses to contravene its own nature.

Animals occupy a crucial space in Deckard's society. They are status symbols, and those who have enough money to purchase real animals (as opposed to robotic facsimiles) are given preferential treatment by their neighbors. The killing and stealing of animals are criminal acts, and perhaps the most shaking twist in the novel is the murder of Deckard's goat by the android Rachael. In order to punish him for doing his job, Rachael kills Deckard's goat, with which she (it?) knows he has a deep emotional connection. What this demonstrates is the evolution of society from its prewar dismissal of animals' rights to its postwar prizing of legitimate animals. Though they are never portrayed as having "rights," and Dick never couches the treatment of animals in these terms, it is clear that Deckard's society has progressed to a point where its understanding of joy, suffering, and the will to live prevent the consumption of animal flesh and byproducts.

The second argument, the argument from survivability, is an argument that encapsulates the way humans treat each other in a functioning society. Because fragments of joy and suffering would imbue humans with an emotional familiarity with all other humans, "a herd animal such as man would acquire a higher survival factor." Predators, in this view, would naturally become extinct because they would be unable to overcome the empathy felt towards prey. This leads Deckard to conclude the predators can feel no empathy and the proof is in their ability to kill. This also establishes the central conflict of the book, which is the internal struggle Deckard feels about killing androids. He himself is a kind of predator, and he is only able to justify retiring androids because he feels no empathy towards them because they themselves lack the empathic gift. However, Deckard makes it clear that he does feel empathy towards animals, even robotic animals like his pet robot sheep. Moreover, this becomes clear when the android Garland says to Deckard, "It's a chance, anyway, breaking free and coming here to Earth, where we're not even considered animals. Where every worm and wood louse is considered more desirable than all of us put together" (122). In Deckard's world, the empathic hierarchy flows down from humans to animals, and then excludes androids. Androids, who feel no solidarity with their own kind, are doomed to fail by their inability to form functioning societies. Veganism, then, is a symptom of a greater system that increases the survivability chances for humanity, especially in a world that has been devastated by nuclear war.

The third argument, the argument from slavery, is a running theme throughout the book. There are numerous parallels between androids and the slaves in American history: they are born into servitude, they serve masters in the colonies, they are severely punished when they attempt to escape, they are treated as subhuman, they have no legal or economic rights (136), and the anxiety felt by humans about androids perfectly mirrors fear of slave rebellions in the nineteenth century. The entire reason that androids are built without empathy is to prevent them from forming associations. In American history, slaves were prevented from learning to read and write and from communicating outside their plantations in order to stymy the dangerous ideas of rebellion produced by the successful slave revolt in Saint-Domingue. The slaves in Deckard's world, the androids who were tasked with manual labor in the colonies, were especially built to prevent them from creating slave revolts (101). Similarly, they were subjected to waves of violence, similar to those against people of color who were seen to have infiltrated certain segments of society reserved for whites. In this case, Earth was segregated and designated as a space for legitimate humans only. Those subhuman androids were excluded from the rights and privileges of humans, despite their remarkable intelligence and resilience.

Some androids, however, did develop interpersonal connections. Roy Baty, the android Deckard feared most, had "proposed the group escape attempt, underwriting it ideologically with a pretentious fiction as to the sacredness of so-called android 'life.' 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" (185). Baty also "married" another android named Irmgard, and the two of them hid out with Pris Stratton, a third android, in order to mount a defense against Deckard. They coordinated traps and combat against Deckard, and even though they failed, they all held the notion that their escape had been justified. Baty, in particular, seemed convinced that androids could feel the same feelings as humans and believed that androids were truly alive.

From the will to live and from a sense that androids could feel togetherness, the androids asserted their fundamental humanity. However, the humans of the book refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of their rights claims. Similarly, humans in our society reject the animal rights claims made on behalf of animals who suffer for the supposed nutrition of human masters. Animals have been enslaved against their wills, despite their suffering, and in spite of their abilities to form friendships and feel joy. The justification for this has always been that animals are subhuman and therefore beyond the bounds of empathy. Let us stop treating them as our slavish machines and treat them as fellow living creatures with whom we share a rapidly deteriorating Earth.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.