And I was reading the Communist Manifesto (though I still don't agree with most of it! and it was for research for this paper!) before. Good lord, what is college doing to me? please don't tell my dad.
The purpose of studying philosophy, beyond attempting to satisfy the intellectually curious, is ultimately to gain a better understanding of how we, as human beings, as a part of this world, ought to live. Is there such a thing as a universal code of ethics that we should all be following? If so, how and why did it come into being? And why should we bother to listen to it? These are questions we have been asking ourselves for thousands of years and there are many possible answers, though when you sift through the elaborate language and superficial differences as far as I can tell it comes down to one major schism: religion. This leads to two ideologies, which for convenience I will refer to hereafter as onus and probity. Onus, as a philosophical (and theological) quality is the idea that we answer to and are punished by a God or higher power for our immorality or immoral acts committed. Probity, on the other hand, emphasizes morality without punishment by divine retribution. Many theological and even philosophical thinkers believe that without the threat of eternal hellfire morality has no meaning, and that belief in a higher power is imperative to following a code of ethics. I will explore this theory and why at first glance it seems to work, then demonstrate how as a basis for morality it ultimately fails and even denigrates the true meaning of ethics.
Firstly, we must define what exactly "morality" or "ethics" is. In the eyes of many religions, it is listening to the word of God. But what does the word of God say? In most organized religions, the words of God are simple, common sense things such as "do not steal" and "do not kill". The reason for this is not a simple coincidence, it is much too widespread for that. Instead, let me suggest the following: humans (and, in fact, all life) are fundamentally selfish (for lack of a better word -- please disregard any negative connotation to the word 'selfish') and always act in what they perceive to be their own self-interest. A useful survival skill for wild animals and human ancestors, this selfishness ironically gives rise to the strongest and most genuine of moral obligations, "do unto others as you would have done unto yourself." This comes logically to any mind that is concious of two facts: that it, itself exists and that it has an impact upon it's surroundings. In this way morality defined is not dependent on any higher power, but rather on our own intellect.
Where does morality come from? For classical philosophers, morality comes from God, clearly, as God is the first mover and the first cause of everything. Exactly how it fits in is somewhat debated, however. Most notable classic philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, et al), have said that it would be considered a universal, a quality or concept that applies to more than one entity. Now the question of what exactly universals again has many radically different answers. According to Plato and Thomas Aquinas these universals have real existence (not physical existence however; existence that does not conform to space and time), either in another plane of existence or in the mind of God. Aristotle, on the other hand, disagreed with Plato and thought that universals do not exist outside the objects they are part of. If there were no universals, there would be no unity between beings, they say. If this were the case, there would be no reason why we shouldn't go out each day and steal, rape, or kill anyone we wanted. To these people, I posit this: why can it not be the case that universals exist, but God does not? Why can there not be a commonality, a unity between persons without it needing to be caused by a higher power? One solution is to tweak Plato or Aristotle's theories to fit, another to follow Ockham and declare that a universal has meaning in name only, either is a viable option. In the case of universals, one could say that there is but one universal that is truly relevant to ethics, and that is life. We look around us, and we can see that other beings have life just as we do. We do not need religion to be able to recognize and respect life.
So if we do not need religion to give cause to morality, and we do not need religion to discern towards what we should be moral, and we do not need religion to determine what morality is, what possible purpose can religion serve?
The only major religion to date which emphasizes morality over punishment is Buddhism. The concept of Karma focuses mainly on the internal pain one would feel if one acted in a way that was immoral. The essence of Buddhist ethical teaching is to examine an action before it is taken and determine if it is harmful to one's self or to others that may be affected by the act. http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/budethics.htm
It is a mistake to think that we cannot do away with religion without losing our morality. For too long we have looked at this problem the wrong way. It is not God who created us, but rather we Him in an effort to ensure ethical conduct from all. It is no mistake or coincidence that all religions have similar basic rules (you shall not murder*, avoid taking the life of beings**, [do not] take life which Allah has made sacred***). It is morality that caused religion, not religion that causes morality. Let us finally cast off these oppressive myths! In this day and age they are unnecessary and debilitating.
*Deuteronomy 5:17, You shall not murder.
**The Five Precepts of Buddhism, 1) To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings.
***Qur'an 17:34, Surah Al-Israa, Nor take life which Allah has made sacred except for just cause.
Be aware, if you are going to take a look (which I actually recommend, even if you disagree with me it's an interesting concept), it's not quite done and it's also a wee bit disjointed because when I write I do not write from the beginning to the end.