In his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, G. W. F. Hegel dwells on the form of the ethical in his time: “This is especially an essential aspect of our time, in which people are less drawn to something by their trust in authority, and would prefer to devote their activity to a cause on the basis of their own understanding of it, their independent conviction and opinions.”1 Hegel points out that the ethical is the conscious union of the subjective will and the universal (or “general”) will. This union is able to come about because individuals have joined together into society. Hegel writes, “The concrete meeting point and union of the two is in ethical freedom in the state.”2 It seems to me that the state can be understood in its most abstract meaning, which is that of a self-conscious society.
The implication from considering the subjective will in such a way is that human activity is important for the realm of ethics, and thus that we decide our own ethics. Hegel speaks of religion as the ethical here. Here, the topic is illuminated by a comparison of how the subjective will functions in Protestantism and Catholicism. One should remember that the Protestant Reformation was the first heresy to survive the Church, and that it introduced doubt into the divinity of the Church. By emphasizing, or even recognizing the role of the subjective, Protestantism implies a major break from the Catholic Church with regard to morality. Hegel writes,
The Catholic religion (although like Protestantism, it is a form of Christianity) does not ascribe to the state the inherent justice and ethical status that lie in the inwardness of the Protestant principle. That sundering of constitutional law from the ethical arises necessarily from the very nature of Catholicism, which does not recognize law and the ethical as independent, as substantial. But these constitutional principles and institutions—once they are torn away from inwardness, from the last sanctuary of conscience, the quiet place where religion resides—do not have an actual [conscious] center, because they remain abstract and indefinite.3
Because Catholicism does not see the ethical as the union of the universal will and the subjective will, and thus as a secular union, but rather sees the ethical as being revealed to the Church through divine revelation, the subjective will in morality is worthless to Catholicism, or, at least, is subordinate to the doctrine of the Church.
1 G. W. F. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988 [collected notes from ca. 1821-31. Originally published as collection in 1840.]), 26.
3 Ibid., 54-55.