The leading edge of moral progress, both for the individual, and for society as a whole, is the process of overcoming prejudice. The battle against prejudice has taken on discrimination based upon clan, tribe, race, nationality, religious belief, gender, and sexual preferences. But at the heart of all prejudice lays the fact of moral identity.
Moral identity is the belief that one's claim to moral character is based upon membership in a group, and that others who are not of this group are morally suspect. It is a heuristic, or rule of thumb, a grossly oversimplified way of making snap judgements about the trustworthiness of others without taking the time to judge each person as an individual. This results in two kinds of blindness: first, others of the same in-group are given a pass even when they are caught doing unethical things, and people of other groups are judged to be unworthy of trust despite their best efforts. A good example of the first kind of error was the tendency amongst Western Communists to excuse the excesses of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. The second type of error is even more common, as evidenced by the attitude of whites towards blacks a century ago, and the recurring blight of anti-semitism.
The culture wars in the politics of many Western nations, particularly in American politics but now spilling over into other countries, are deeply rooted in the moral identities of Conservative and Liberal. In fact, the labels have so often been skewed and misappropriated that they no longer mean much of anything, and yet extraordinary amounts and ink and bandwidth have been spent defending or attacking one or the other. Strip them of their labels, though, and you often cannot tell these pundits apart, and even as they distort the position of their opponents in strawman arguments, they warp their own ideology through sheer vitriol. We also have the often outrageous and sometimes comical attempts to appropriate great historical figures for the cause, often by grossly misrepresenting their views, or by inventing opinions that they never held. If our side is good, then good people must belong to our side. Likewise, vilified figures are given membership in the other side. The other side is evil, so anyone evil must be one of theirs. This distorts history, weakens our understanding of human nature, and warps our view of the world into simple binary opposites. This blindness is far more debilitating than the ideologies themselves; indeed, partisans threatens to devour the very ideologies they claim to support and turn the debate into a simple battle of red vs. blue, with neither colour signifying anything more than itself. Problems are created, or left unsolved, by the simple fact of partisan animosity, which diverts attention, energy, and resources from useful work.
Those who share a moral identity are inclined to let others in their group get off lightly, a tendency which impairs corrective efforts. Furthermore, moral identities not only excuse the actions of others who hold the same identity, but our own actions as well. If my own moral identity is a guarantee of righteousness, I am far less inclined towards self criticism, and more optimistic about my own moral character. A recent study found that religious adherents "considered themselves, on average, almost twice as likely as their peers to adhere to such biblical commandments as 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'" Fundamentalists ranked highest on this scale. This may be the reason why religious people are found to be happier than those without faith--they have higher self-esteem. But high self-esteem is no predictor of moral character, nor has any correlation been found between religious identity and ethical competence. Moral identities contribute strongly to perceptions of ethical character, but not to the creation of them.
With the fall of Adolf Hitler, the very idea of moral identity was cast into doubt, because the Nazi regime was itself based upon a moral identities; German citizenship and the Aryan race. This threw both nationalism and racism into disgrace, particularly in Europe, and this constitutes genuine ethical progress. But this resulted in a general malaise as many learned the wrong lesson; from discovering that no race, nation, or ideology established moral credentials, many people went on to the mistaken and unfounded belief that not only was no group better than any other, but that nothing was better than anything else.
This is an immediately contradictory idea, because it is itself based upon an ethical claim. The validity of moral judgement does not derive from a special claim of moral authority, but upon argument and evidence in open debate, and has many similarities to the scientific method. Social experiments are attempted, some of which fail, and some of which succeed. Attempts at radical experiments, based purely on ideology, can prove disastrous. Real progress is gradual and incremental, sometimes frustratingly slow as old traditions based upon incorrect assumptions are slowly uprooted or corrected. Pushing too hard can cause traditionalists to become reactionaries, but not pushing hard enough will leave entrenched prejudices in place. Any challenge to cherished beliefs will be considered rude by some, but the best approach may be outright ridicule, which exposes the weaknesses of an ethical position in the highest contrast possible. Since moral identities are held sacred by their members, it is often necessary to deflate them with humour, and make them a point of embarrassment, rather than an object of pride. The danger that must be avoided is that in ridiculing a position, the satirist may resort to a strawman caricature. When this happens, only the converted are convinced; the opposition sees nothing of themselves in the caricature, and considers the one who draws it a fool.
The real lesson of the Third Reich was the invalidity of moral identity, but moral identities have made a comeback through identity politics, particularly amongst minorities. Although moral identity is not tolerated in anyone viewed to be the majority, or to be in a position of power, the moral identities of those who are regarded as being oppressed are encouraged--and the mere fact that they are a minority, or not in power, is now regarded as enough to establish a claim to oppression. This is entirely the wrong approach, because it splinters society into warring factions, each judging itself to be morally superior, while anyone in a position of power is, by default, judged to be ethically suspect. The result is perpetual deadlock. All are stuck in place, and even a change in the power structure becomes pointless because the new boss is always believed to be the same as the old boss, simply because he or she is the boss. Politics becomes a fight between special interests, and calls to non-partisan cooperation are regarded as an affront to other factions, a call to surrender the grievances and pride they hold most dear. Nothing is good in itself, only good from some group--and if they can have something, everyone else wants something too. Again, nothing can be accomplished, and every bill that is passed becomes a byzantine nightmare of riders and earmarks.
The most recent offshoot of this ethical relativism is multiculturalism. Believing that moral judgments concerning the practices of other cultures were the product of claims to higher authority, many in Europe abandoned the capacity for moral judgment altogether when it came to people of other cultures. Europeans refused to share the lesson they learned in the war, employing a double standard when dealing with other cultures, celebrating the very hubris in others that had been so disastrous to themselves. We are not better because of who we are, but you are better because of who you are. This has already begun to bear fruit in an atavistic trend amongst cloistered communities, and a return to violence based upon moral identities rooted, primarily, in religious and cultural identities amongst minorities.
In Canada, where multiculturalism was first embraced, the idea was a different one. Canada accepted and encouraged different races, religions, and cultural expressions, but never renounced its right to make ethical judgements about cultural practices which violated Canadian standards. Far less traumatized by the war, and escaping much of the taint of collaboration which touched many Europeans under occupation, Canadians and Americans remained confident in their ability to make sound ethical judgements. In a very real sense, the Canadian identity is the lack of identity, specifically, the lack of moral identity. Forced to this position by a split between English and French Canadians, Canada was already well on its way towards this even before the war. It's main failure in this regard has been the treatment of natives, who are maintained as a separate entity, and have a moral identity thrust upon them, much as European minorities retain their own moral identities whether they like it or not. As with Europeans, this blunder was motivated by a sense of guilt. This is a road to hell paved with good intentions.
The moral identities of minorities make them oil in the water of their societies, greatly limiting economic opportunities with all but their own people. Encouraged to keep their own traditions, they may lack much of the knowledge they need to succeed in the general economy. Thrust back into their own neighbourhoods, they form ghettos of the disenfranchised, with all the problems that poverty is heir to. They are caught in the perfect trap. To escape, they must relinquish the one claim upon which their self-worth is based; the claim to moral and spiritual superiority. Yet, all the while, they are forced to work in menial jobs, or accept welfare. Their demands for respect are futile; pity undermines respect, both the respect of others and the respect of self. We are often astounded at stories told of people who stand at the brink of destitution, but who nevertheless refuse charity. Foolish pride, we call it, but in many circumstances, the recipient of pity suffers an immediate and irreversible decline in status, and this status is the equivalent of a social credit rating. Good enough they may be for a trickle of charity to keep them alive, but they are no longer worth the risk of investment. For those in such circumstances, charity may come at too high a price. It is one thing to be lost, but it is quite another to be branded a loser.
The walls that surround the ghettos are reinforced on both sides, by resentment and by the conviction of superiority. The general populace celebrates their own goodness in the welfare and tolerance of the minority, who are kept like pets in a menagerie, quaint and colourful, but economically and politically neutered. Their own moral identity has crept back in unannounced and unacknowledged, white man's burden with a liberal mask. The members of the minority supplement their claims of spiritual superiority with claims of martial might. They stick it to the man, and the man, who is all too ready for this, strikes back. The minority gang member trades the prison of the ghetto for a real prison, if not a coffin, and his transition to the status of slave is complete.
The route out of this is the renunciation of all moral identities, including that of the minority--but not the right to make ethical judgments. Laws and expectations must be applied to all equally, and considerations of race, religion, or culture should play no part in their application. There is no advantage in preserving these cultural enclaves, and the worst of the disadvantages are borne by the minorities themselves. We are doing them no favours. The walls must come down. But to do this, both sides must surrender their claims to moral superiority and see the situation as it is, with all its horrors and disgraces. But they do not both have to do it at once. Either side may choose to initiate the change, making it only a matter of time before the other side recognizes the problem.
Religious moral identities are a special problem. Unlike those of race, nation, gender, or sexual preference, religion is voluntary, and indeed, its stated purpose is to create a moral identity, which it is hoped will improve the character of believers. Sometimes it does, but a moral identity which can be assumed at will can be feigned. And a good reputation confers an advantage that will draw the worst, who will desire that reputation for their own ends. The Franciscan order, which began as a collection of men and women of genuine intent, attracted so much wealth and respect that it quickly went rotten. There is no way to prevent this short of the most draconian strictures upon adherents of the sect. This is the meaning of religious sacrifice; It is not the peacock's tail, meant to prove your fitness, but a handicap intended to be severe enough to discourage the purely self-interested from joining. Yet any system severe enough to prevent this will also, in all likelihood, cripple the community and prevent it from thriving to be more than a short lived minor sect. Any practical system of religious observance can be gamed.
The Jains have an interesting tradition for their holy men. A holy man must take a vow of absolute poverty, and holds no office. He has one perk: he may ask for a meal from any follower. And he has one power: he may refuse this meal! This casts the sincerity of the follower into doubt. The holy man's influence may be exercised only at the cost of his one advantage. It may be that there are ways to game this system--almost any system is open to exploitation--but this is about as close as you can get to a sure fire method of discouraging anyone who isn't serious from going for the job. Contrast this to luxury of bishops (created as the equivalent of medieval lords and princes), the power and wealth of megachurch ministers, or the outrageous lifestyles of the televangelists. Muslim clerics wield even greater power; with sharia law, they act as judges, and even claim the right to set the laws of the land. These powers will draw the worst to the clergy. Religions can never guarantee, as they claim, the moral qualifications of their adherents. A peculiar balance exists: the higher the moral standards of its members, the greater the pull for the unethical if the reputation of the sect conveys economic or political advantage. The one will balance the other until the sect is no better or worse than any other.
Yet, the sum total of positives and negatives may be less than zero, when we consider the other pitfalls of moral identity, particularly the tendency to excuse the actions of those who hold that identity. This was obviously at work when the current pope permitted known pedophiles to be shuffled around to escape detection and prosecution; he considered them good Catholics. But he was also protecting the moral identity of other Catholics, by trying to spare them the cognitive dissonance of a catholic who is capable of evil. This points to another problem particular to religion: if God exists, then he should act to prevent his ministers from doing evil. God does intervene, doesn't he? Despite all assertions to the contrary by those who insist that Christianity is predominantly a mystical, non-interventionist religion, the pope knows that this is nonsense. The Vatican has done the research, and they know very well what their product is; magic, healing, fortune! No one will pay for a deist God, a non-interventionist God, a God who pays no attention to events in time. Very few people worship "the ground of all existence," if any. They want a God who does tricks and helps people when they need it, and such a God should not tolerate evil priests. The existence of pedophile priests throws this God into question, or worse, throws the connection of the Church to this God into question. The problem of evil has always been a major stumbling block to religion. The problem of evil within a religion is even worse.