The religion of empathy

I’ve been thinking back on P.K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In the film version (Blade Runner) you sympathize with the androids: they are dangerous and resentful of humans, but it really isn’t their fault, they are like wild animals. If a disoriented bear gets lost in a city, you can feel sorry for him, not blame him for damage he causes, and still recognize that he needs to be shot before he hurts someone. In Electric Sheep however you start off sympathizing with the androids and then end up hating them.

In Blade Runner the test that sorts out androids from humans focus on the androids’ inexperience: they only live for three years, spend most of their short lives in space, and would not know, for example, that Americans don’t eat boiled dog. In Electric Sheep the tests are designed to test the subject’s capacity for empathy according to the dictates of Mercerism, the future religion of empathy.

Mercerism is all about peace, empathy, and kindness to animals, and it became the official world religion after nuclear war wiped out most human and almost all other animal life. The key ritual is watching a video of the founder, Wilbur Mercer, attempting to climb a mountain while being bombarded with rocks. The ritual-goer attempts to develop his capacity for empathy by imagining himself and all of humanity as Mercer. It is sort of like Nietzsche’s (false, to my mind) characterization of Christianity as “the religion of pity”.

So in Electric Sheep Deckard’s test would paint a scene in which people are eating oysters, a cruel and barbaric practice to a Mercerist, and measure the subject’s reactions. The test would also describe people in painful or dangerous situations: a human would involuntarily cringe or wince out of empathy while the android would feel nothing. An android might attempt to fake the emotion, but the tester is watching for a human’s unconscious micro-expressions which an android could never imitate.

Since the androids are not able to feel empathy themselves, they can’t imagine humans really feeling it either so they suspect it is a trick or plot to keep androids in their place. Likewise, they think Mercerism is just a ruse to deny rights to androids, and theorize that “Wilbur Mercer” is an actor, which of course he is: like ancient mythological religions, Mercerism never claims to be based in historical fact. The point is that their lack of empathy means they can’t imagine being a devout Mercerist.

Of course the limits of structure-free empathy are on display in Electric Sheep: Deckard can’t square his ruthless hunting of androids with his desire to be a good Mercerist and in the end he really doesn’t have to because the feeling of empathy does not propose any principles of action. People who argue for an ethics of empathy are usually proposing some form of utilitarianism, i.e. the greatest good for the greatest number of people (as long as they get to decide what the greatest good is and presume for themselves god-like knowledge of how to achieve it with no room for unintended consequences.)

That does not mean empathy is unimportant, it makes us highly social animals (all pack animals have some degree of empathy). Deficient empathy is a major personality flaw that is at the root of all kinds of pathological behavior. There probably is not such a thing as too much empathy, so long as, like all emotions, it is governed by principle.







  1. John B. · · Reply

    It’s cliched by now to complain that people in post-WWII and especially post-60s America rely too much on emotion and value emotional states too highly, in particular at the expense of reason. There’s probably something to that complaint. When you look at the worries of the past 70 years, in particular the ones that earlier ages didn’t have to deal with, you find the possibility that we could annihilate the planet and the nagging fear that we are actually just automata looming pretty large. Watch a few “Twilight Zone” episodes and this really comes out. I hadn’t made the connection until I read this post, but in “Electric Sheep” P. K. Dick connects the characteristic worries with the feelings-obsession. And we get one of his many delightful, funhouse-mirror caricatures of Christian worship thrown it to boot. He’s at his best in that one, with his knack for seeing to the heart of things in a weird and exaggerated way on full display.

    On a related note, if you ask a room full of kids what makes us human, many will say that it’s our feelings. If you’re schooled in ancient and medieval philosophy, this might drive you nuts, but one possible reason for it is that Aristotle wanted to know what separates us from the brute animals, whereas for many contemporary people the question is what separates us from machines.

    1. Thanks, I hadn’t thought of that cultural context at all.

  2. […] I’ve always argued that empathy does not work for determining ethical behavior because it is 1) selective and 2) it provides no direction for how to act.  […]

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