This is my input on the issue as a complete layman to the concepts. However, a layman should be able to determine how a moral compas works, if only to understand how one comes to the conclusions of what is right and wrong, to have better judgement on ones decision making. In a democratic society the citizen is a guard of much more, than just the fate of oneself, or even the family and the closest people of oneself. This is a bit long but there are happy news at the end.

All people have an innate sense of right and wrong. Though we often can easily agree on the nature of fair and unfair we  as individuals, groups and societies also very often however see different things as good, or evil. How do we come to the conclusions of what is really wrong and right?

Many religions defend their place in the modern society by claiming that their particular gods and therfore the religions themselves are the source of moral codes. This is off course very true on the part of the religions. Allmost every religion has some sort of moral code and many of them regardless of their different and mutually exclusive concepts of gods agree on some basic principles of morals. Does that mean that these suggested supernatural entities and their commandments are in fact the supreme way to know what is right or wrong?

The divine commands are more often seen as more like a guidelines. They are at best vague, since many of them are infact so ancient the writers of these commands had no idea of any modern social, nor moral issues. I for one do not know any religion, that has to say anything about the use of nuclear power or nuclear weapons, but it is a moral issue, if there ever was one. The take of any particular religion on genetic manupulation may be very outspoken, but to claim that there actually is something about it in the holy scriptures of any religion older than 100 years is absurd. What do the religions think about overpopulation? It seems that to all the older religions this concept was somewhat unknown, though the problem of too many people in a limited area was propably well known to them and the approach was often rather tribal. Does that make it a non-moral issue? What about the pollution? I hear religion used as authority to both justify and condemn pollution. However, these interpretations of scriptures alledgedly inspired by deities, are allways based on a very far reaching metaphors, that can obviously in all cincerity be seen as complete opposite advices on what to do. Since the divinities themselves are not in a habit of appearing to clear out such chisms, people are left on their own devices to compare the views of demagogues using the divine word to lead people in different directions.  The ancient scriptures often have some very specific orders about hygieny and what was percieved a hygienic issues at the time of the writing, but in larger issues they give us these general advices on what might be seen as good, or evil and it is up to us to apply them. Simple, right? Well, not so. You see, the main problem is how do we know wich divine commands are the ones we should follow? Though the divine orders have many generally humane similarities, they also disagree on a bunch of matters. The gods are not appearing to us to reveal wich religion serves the true gods. This leads to the guessing game where we should decide on what paricular alledged god has given us the correct answers on what is right and what is wrong. By far most of the people in the world decide between different deities by choosing the supernatural entities most popular within their own culture. Even if they are aware of other gods and cultures, the rules given by the divines of their own culture seem to appeal to them the most, since that is the culture to wich they have been indoctrinated. This method of comparing the moral messages of different cultures and religions and just choosing one and discarding all the others is not a very effective way to come close to any objective truth in the matter. Is it? Is there a way of ethics to judge between the different morals offered between different societies, cultures and religions?

How do we form our ethics? It seems our emotions play a very big part on this. Such primarily emotions as empathy and compassion, but also a certain need for retribution. Now those are emotions that many animal species also exhibit. All mammals are capable of such emotions and even many birds to my knowledge represent them quite often. It seems that these advanced forms of animal life that form family groups, packs, herds, or flocks are more prone to behaviour that is obviously drawn from these emotions. So, this shoud indicate that is where our ability to be compassionate comes from. That it is the very succesfull survival mechanics of the social animals to have emotions to support each others. But humans are not only dependant on the intiuition and emotion. We also have the power of logic and reason to help us. This is not to say other species were incapable of reasoning and logic. That would be absurd, as there are so many examples of animals acting on their individual reasoning. However, we humans have the most significant capability of reasoning we know of. Correct?

We can reason what is reasonably good and what is logically bad. But we need to base our logical reasoning on some attributes we give to things as right or wrong to come to any conclusions at all, and indeed that base is very instinctive. It is the emotional base for empathy. If we have no empathy none what so ever, our judgement of good and bad is based on simply selfish aims. That is the inner world of the psychopat. If we are able to feel compassion to others we can also see, that something being harmfull to a nother person, animal or even inanimate object might also be somehow wrong in the first place. That utilization of compassion is called ethics. It is very logical indeed. It is based not only on emotional compassion, but on information. With better information we have better estimation, evaluation and finally better judgement of matters. And it pays of too. A more compassionate social group will eventually also be more succesfull, because it produces more equal members and therefore utilizes the constructive abilities of all the members of the group to the maximum. Happy people are infact more productive, than unhappy ones. Are they not?

What compells the individual to do the right thing? Fear of divine wrath, or willingness to percieve oneself as a good and moral person? If the latter is not enough, will the former stop you from total selfisness?

A child may benefit from taking the authority of the parent at face value. The experience and knowledge the parent has and is able to convey to the offspring is beneficial to the child. This is one of the first lessons not only we human beings, but also most socias species learn. As we grow to adulthood we also learn to suspect authority. Not all authorities are out there to benefit us as individuals as you very well know.  Though the rebellious three year old, or the disillusioned teenager may strain the nerves of the parent, it is very important part of our development to learn to think for ourselves. We in the western world think that democracy is better way of government, than any authorative system. Why? Because adult citizens may decide for themselves what is right and wrong and as a community to decide upon the matter as opposed to someone dictating it by appealing to authority. But in all forms of human socieity we individuals form the social morals of our culture by deciding what we percieve right, or wrong and acting accordingly. Is morals then just a case of popular vote and are there therfore no inaliable rights? Yes and no. The inalienable rights of a human being are infact what we decide them to be. Why we should decide this or that is under debate. By ethics we are able to determine why certain kind of behaviour is wrong and abusing of what we come to conclude as human rights. Human rights do not exist outside human experience. But by our ability for compassion, we are aware of what should be, even though this is sometimes clouded by our cultural heritage, that brings up ideals that are not beneficial to the human condition, like religious commands against certain kind of sexual behaviour between mutually concending adults, or phobias of different cultures and even skin coluours, that are so often used as excuses to abuse other human beings.  There definately is some form of objective truth about right and wrong, but to determine what that is we need to put our collective ability for compassion and our reason to use to find it. That is called ethics. By ethics alone we can compare different claims made about the right and wrong, or good and evil. It works for us both in great philosophical terms and everyday life.

But if we have this superior method of comparing different moral values given to us by different social, cultural and religious sources, then do we need those sources? Obviously not, but it would be terrible a waste of effort to just simply throw all the cultural inheritance of the previous generations away. Rather, we should draw from them, but discard what is not really ethical, or valid anymore because our information of matters has grown, or because the situation has changed.

And here are the happy news of this post: We are allready doing this. Infact, this has been going on for ever and the new generations allways re-evaluate the values handed down to them by their predecessors. And as our information and education grows so does the information on wich we base our moral choises.  No Christian society stones the homosexuals to death anymore, no matter what it says in the Bible, because the general understanding has grown that it would be incompassionate, counterproductive and therefore just plain wrong.