Why did some audience members at a recent GOP debate yell “yeah!” when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, “Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him [an uninsured man in a coma] die?”

What does it mean when people cheer for the vulnerable to die? Of all the troubling revelations that have emerged from the Republican debates, this outburst has unnerved me the most.

In haste, I would say that those clapping and cheering are simply sadistic. But I worry that the applause signals an overarching collapse of empathy, even a symptom of failing humanity. OK, so this sounds like catastrophizingpresenting a situation as worse than it actually isbut the audience reaction does invite us to puzzle the connections between empathy and humanness.

Frans de Waal, a biologist, argues in The Age of Empathy (2008) that humans are human because we are empathetic. De Waal writes, “Empathy is part of the survival package, and human society depends on it as much as many other animal societies do.” Working against claims by economists and biologists that humans are essentially self-interested, de Waal demonstrates that, like primates, elephants and dolphins, we have an instinct for cooperation rooted in our ability to identify with the suffering of others. So, I have to ask, will we ever be human?

De Waal depicts humanity generously, if also romantically. It may be true that elephants display empathyin fact, I am sure they dobut I am less certain as to how empathy functions for humans. If U.S. politicians are an example of humanitymany of you are snickeringhow has empathy shaped politics?

In President Barack Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, he suggested that her capacity for “empathy” was a distinguishing quality. For the same qualities, Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, fought to keep her from the court.

House Republicans approved the “Protect Life Act” this October. The bill would allow hospitals to refuse to perform an emergency abortion on religious or moral grounds, even if a woman’s life is at stake. The bill would have particularly devastating effects on rural communities that have only one hospital. The decision of the House disarticulates the “pro-life” slogan into something much more insidious and much less empathetic.

Kathy Rudy, a professor of women’s studies at Duke University, has thought about abortion debates and animal relationships. In her new book, Loving Animals (2011), Rudy delivers a critical analysis of animal-rights movements, proposing in their place an ethics of “loving.” She teaches us that by developing the bare bones of human empathy we can emotionally and spiritually find our way toward other animals. She argues that one of our main obstacles in loving animals, and for Rudy, especially dogs, is our tendency to exploit them as commodities.

While Rudy and I disagree about many thingsI think that veganism is an intervention in the “meat industrial complex,” and animal-rights legislation is necessary in the United StatesI agree with her general argument. After all, we have been living with other animals since we crawled up “evolution’s gently sloping beach.”

I have long believed that Americans would do well to reconnect with our own animality. Acknowledging that we are literally composed of our relationships with other species seems like a good starting point. Bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms inhabit our body from surface to interior. Their activities make health and digestion possible for humans. The divide that we construct between ourselves and other organisms is an artifice. Our ability to disavow our own animality has enabled us to turn other animals into food, to justify medical experimentation on them and to discount their claim on the planet.

I’m with de Waal and Rudy in wanting to squarely locate the human with our animal neighbors, but I’m not sure how this ambition brooks with empathy and love. Like Rudy, I want to believe that “loving” will heal the human and animal divide. Undoubtedly we love animals, but a capacity to love doesn’t obviously equate to empathetic or responsible engagement. While beautiful and even luxuriating, love is strangely aimed toward inequality, despite our best intentions.

Love of animals surely mattered for Terry Thompson, the Ohio farmer who released his captive animals before ending his life. And now these same animals are piled high. While Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s overturning of a ban on the import of “exotic animals” enabled this carnage, it is Thompson’s own despair that unraveled love into its brutal elements.

Where is our sense of compassion in this time of fading empathy? Unfortunately, compassion has become redolent of sentimentality. To be compassionate is to seem trite. But compassion exists in the outer reaches of empathy. If empathy is identification with someone’s suffering, compassion is imagining oneself in the circumstances that produce someone’s suffering.

For most of us, it is difficult to extend empathy into compassion; our empathy mostly resides in our homes and with loved ones. To include chickens, and further out, sharks, and even further, fleas, empathy must be transformed into compassion so that even if you can’t identify, you can still empathize with their suffering.

I do not know if other animals are compassionate. De Waal tells the story of Kuni, a captive bonobo ape who tried to help an injured bird fly out of an enclosure that she herself could not leave. Kuni placed the bird outside her enclosure, but the bird was too stunned to fly. She gently picked up the bird and climbed the highest tree in her enclosure and carefully spread its wings, holding one in each hand, and sent it into the air. Does Kuni recognize her captor’s failure of empathy to release her? And if she does, where would Kuni go if she left captivity?

Even as Americans are cajoled into becoming inhuman by political agendas, empathy and even compassion surely find niches in which to flourish. But I am finding it more and more difficult to hold open that possibility in a world of rapidly closing doors. It seems that we are all waiting for the clink of the deadbolt. Will we have enough time to become human?