Long ago [Isidore] had lost sight of them. He found himself evidently climbing alone. But they were there. They still accompanied him; he felt them, strangely, inside him.
Isidore stood holding the two handles, experiencing himself as encompassing every other living thing, and then, reluctantly, he let go. (2.29)
You know what really helps us figure out symbols? When the concept is right there on the label. Thanks, Dick! The empathy box turns the abstract concept of empathy physical, making it really, really easy to understand. No, really, Dick: we get it.
Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida. (3.16)
Turn off Threes and pay attention, Shmoopers: this is one of the mostimportant quotes in the novel. If empathy exists only in humans, then you could argue that empathy is the defining feature of humanity. That is, you have to have empathy to be human. But if it were that easy, this wouldn't be great literature.
[Eldon's] voice had become hard and bitingly penetrating. "Your police department—others as well—may have retired, very probably have retired, authentic humans with underdeveloped empathic ability, such as my innocent niece here. Your position, Mr. Deckard, is extremely bad morally. Ours isn't." (5.48)
Didn't take long for use to see how not easy empathy is, did it? While Rachael turns out to be an android—not a human with underdeveloped empathetic ability—Eldon's question echoes throughout the novel. Is killing something for a lack of empathy morally wrong? Is it, in fact, not empathetic?
And the American and Soviet police had publicly stated that Mercerism reduced crime by making citizens more concerned about the plight of their neighbors. Mankind needs more empathy. (7.24)
Turns out, it actually is hard to stab and rob someone when you stop to think about how much it hurts to be stabbed. (That's it: we're officially declaring all stabbers to be androids.)
"It's not just false memory structures," Phil Resch said. "I own an animal; not a false one but the real thing. A squirrel. I love that squirrel, Deckard; […]." (11.52)
Resch's argument for his humanity is that he loves his squirrel, and only a human could have that kind of feeling for a non-human. But we're calling him out here. Everyone loves squirrels. Fact!
Rick said, "There is a defect in your empathic, role-taking ability. One which we don't test for. Your feelings toward androids."
"Of course we don't test for that."
"Maybe we should." He had never thought of it before, had never felt any empathy on his own part toward the androids he killed. (12.95-97)
Here, Rick begins to question how to define true empathy, and this doubt drives his actions for the rest of the novel. Can it really be considered empathy if you can pick and choose what you feel empathy for? Or is empathy an all or nothing proposition? It's kind of like that O-Town song in that it's nothing like that O-Town song.
[Iran] held up her wrist; on it he made out a small dark bruise. "And I remember thinking how much better we are, how much better off, when we're with Mercer. Despite the pain. Physical pain but spiritually together; I felt everyone else, all over the world, all who had fused at the same time." (15.60)
The rocks in the empathy box are a reminder that empathy has physical consequence despite being an abstract concept. If you cried at the beginning of Up or cringed when that guy was kicked to death during the elevator scene in Drive, then you know empathy can be a very physical sensation indeed. Actually, bring on the rocks; just don't make us watch the beginning of Up again. So sad.
Roy and Irmgard Baty
"No, it's that empathy," Irmgard said vigorously. Fists clenched, she roved into the kitchen, up to Isidore. "Isn't it a way of proving that humans can do something we can't do? Because without the Mercer experience we just have your word that you feel this empathy business, this shared, group thing. How's the spider?" (18.59)
The irony of Irmgard's conclusion is lost on her but not us. The very fact that they can torture that poor spider by cutting off its legs proves they lack empathy. Honestly, that's some Macdonald triad behavior right there.
"If you kill them you won't be able to fuse with Mercer again," Isidore said.
"You won't take me up there? Show me which floor? Just tell me the floor. I'll figure out which apartment on the floor it is."
"No," Isidore said. (19.20-22)
Isidore is the poster boy for empathy. His empathic ability is off the charts, and ever after watching the androids torture the spider, he still can't help Rick kill them. Come on, Isidore! Spiders are a crucial link in the food web. What have androids done for you lately?
So this is what Mercer sees, [Rick] thought as he painstakingly tied the cardboard box shut—tied it again and again. Life which we can no longer distinguish; life carefully buried up to its forehead in the carcass of a dead world. In every cinder of the universe Mercer probably perceives inconspicuous life. Now I know, he thought. And once having seen through Mercer's eyes, I probably will never stop. (22.9)
This is a toughy, so you might want to read it more than once. Go on, we'll wait.
Back? Okay. This quote is all about the importance of empathy. When Dick in the voice of Rick describes reality as "the carcass of a dead world," his point is that we have to nurture that "inconspicuous life" to prevent things from getting worse. Empathy is the key to beginning and sustaining that nurturing attitude. And, as Rick notes, once you start seeing life empathetically, good luck unseeing it.