In the future, androids have invaded Earth from space colonies and live among humans. They could be your boss, your neighbor, your dentist, and you'd never know it. And while we at present-day Shmoop think it would be awesome if our dentist was like, "Yeah, I'm a super intelligent android, no biggie," the people of the future don't like the idea. Not one bit.
Maybe it is because that androids do things better than humans. Maybe it is because the androids are supposed to be slave property of the space colonist. Whatever the reason, the humans needed a way to identify androids from humans.
Enter the Voigt-Kampff test.
Not Open Book
The Voigt-Kampff test is the standard for differentiating androids from humans. During the test, the test giver, usually a bounty hunter, asks a series of questions revolving around hypothetical social situations where an animal is harmed or killed. Here is one of the questions asked during Rachael's test:
"Okay," [Rick] said, nodding. "Now consider this. You're reading a novel written in the old days before the war. The characters are visiting Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. They become hungry and enter a seafood restaurant. One of them orders lobster, and the chef drops the lobster into the tub of boiling water while the characters watch." (5.14)
The test giver then reads the taker's reaction to the question. The actual answer plays no importance, just the taker's eye-muscle and capillary reaction (5.3). If the taker shows an empathic response to that poor lobster's fate, he or she is a human. If no empathic response is shown, he or she is an android. The human gets to walk free; the android gets a free sampling of lasertube. (And a delicious dinner. Too much?)
One Size Does Not Fit All
But there are a few problems with the Voigt-Kampff test that should make us question handing out a simple pass/fail (read: life/death) grade.
First, as Eldon points out during Rachael's test, a human with an "underdeveloped empathic ability" might be killed in place of an android. Eldon tries to trick Rick into believing this is Rachael's problem. (Not true, but the point is that it could be.)
Second, the test generally looks for a person's empathic response toward animals. This means there can be holes in a person's empathy, but as long as that hole doesn't deal with the animals in question, the person will pass the test.
Rick eventually realizes that this is Resch's problem: "There is a defect in your empathic, role-taking ability. One which we don't test for. Your feelings toward androids" (12.95). What makes empathy toward androids any less valuable than toward animals? Or humans?
Third, and this is a big one for us, not too many people reading the book today would pass the test.
The fates of the animals in Rick's questionnaire are horrible when you stop and think on them, but several of the situations are so every day to us that we in fact don't think of them as horrible. Maybe you felt sorry for the lobster, but what about the bearskin rug? Or the squished wasp? Or the leather wallet? By the Voigt-Kampff standard, ordering anything made from animal would result in a fail, meaning only a few modern-day vegans would likely walk away from it. The point is that by the standards of the Voigt-Kampff test, most of us reading the book aren't technically human.
And Our Point Is
Like most science fiction, there's a big helping of fact tucked away in there, like black beans hiding out in brownies.
When the Founding Fathers were drafting the U.S. Constitution, they had to decide what people qualified as "We the People." Not on the list were women and slaves. Actually, only white, male adult property-owners had the right to vote, so "We the People" was more around 10 to 16 percent of the actual people when the U.S. was getting underway (source).
Want something a little closer to the present day? In 1920s, German officials came up with a 25-point Party Program "to abrogate Jews' political, legal, and civil rights" (source). This made it very clear that by the standards of the so-called "Aryan Nation" the Jews were not to be considered endowed with the same human rights.
Dig deep enough into any society's history and you'll come up with similar laws. The Voigt-Kampff test symbolizes these laws, the standards that separate "us" from "them," and tests that help "us" rise above "them." But with any such test, the holes are there if you scrutinize and don't just accept its results at face value.