"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 s...
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hooves were broken, so that every step meant agony, that the horses were
insane with thirst. The Americans had treated their form of transportation
as though it were no more sensitive than a six-cylinder Chevrolet. (Vonnegut 196)
Empathy--this more than anything else makes us human. Though Philip Dick and Kurt Vonnegut disagree slightly how one would measure this empathy which apparently only humans can feel, they both agree that a person's ability to feel for another is something that is unique to humans. The moment we stop feeling empathy for another form of life is the moment we would stop being human and start being androids/machines.
Dick, Philip K. Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1966.
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