God is said to be morally perfect. According to one interpretation, this means that God seeks to maximize the good—he is committed to making this the best of all possible worlds. Of course, that does not appear to be the case (pace Leibniz), thus producing the problem of evil. I want to put that problem aside and focus on the definition of moral perfection as maximizing the good. What does it mean exactly?
Suppose that the basic goods are of three kinds: happiness, knowledge, and aesthetic appreciation. Then God’s obligation is held to be maximizing these goods, making sure they could not be improved upon. People must be happy, knowledgeable, and aesthetically appreciative. That sounds reasonable, but how far must God go to ensure that these goods are maximized? Suppose Anne is a happy person by any normal standards; however, she occasionally has a distressing thought or a feeling of mild remorse. Since she is not maximally happy, God regards it as his duty to step in and improve her state of mind, blocking such thoughts and feelings. Put aside issues of interference and paternalism: do we think that God is under any obligation to improve Anne’s mood in these ways? Are you under any such obligation with respect to people you know? Must every discomfort be removed, every desire sated, every thought be made a happy thought? Surely not: that would be morally excessive. Should you feel guilty about not doing everything you can to remove every hint or smidgen of unhappiness from the world? No–and neither should God feel obliged to maximize happiness to such a degree.
Or consider knowledge: should that be maximized? Suppose Jean is a very knowledgeable person, well versed in history, science, philosophy, and so on. We would normally think that we have no educational duties with respect to Jean. But Jean doesn’t know everything about everything; there is a lot that she doesn’t know. Is God obliged to step in to rectify these lacks, thus maximizing the good of knowledge? Is he letting Jean down if he doesn’t immediately install a full knowledge of botany? Maybe she would value such additional knowledge, but is God failing in his moral duty by not ensuring that Jean knows these extra things? Again, that seems excessive: there is no general duty to maximize knowledge—to make it as extensive as possible.
Similarly for aesthetic appreciation: must it be maximized? Linda is a keen follower of the arts, cultivated and open-minded, as appreciative as anyone you know. But she doesn’t appreciate everything; she fails, say, to see the point of certain painting styles. That may be a limitation on her part, but the question is whether God has a duty to remedy this lack? If he does nothing, is he under suspicion of non-existence, granted that he is morally perfect by definition? Can God be criticized for not ensuring that Linda appreciates every work of art to the maximum? Surely that would be excessive, even if it would not be excessive for God to ensure that she has some aesthetic appreciation. That is, God has no duty to make Linda into the most esthetically appreciative person conceivable—just as he has no duty to make Anne and Jean into the happiest and most knowledgeable people conceivable. He could achieve these things, but it would be excessive. It looks more like a form of moral obsession than a sensible moral outlook, like making sure not one speck of dirt remains on the kitchen floor.
What should we conclude from this? The first thing is that there is such a thing as moral excess. This is not the same thing as acting in a supererogatory manner: that is not a form of moral excess, just a commendable wish to go beyond the call of strict duty. Moral excess is a kind of mistake, not a desirable trait. It is a miscalculation about what one should do. This means that any moral theory that recommends such excess is wrong about the nature of obligation and right action. It is just not true that we have an obligation to maximize the good—though we may well have a duty to bring about a certain amount of good. Ideal consequentialism is therefore false. Specifically, we don’t have a duty to rectify trivial suffering, especially of a normal human kind—such as the odd melancholy thought or a minor twinge or a little throb of lust. Nor does anyone have a duty to educate everybody in everything, or work assiduously at improving everyone’s appreciation of art no matter how much of an aesthete they already are. Such general prescriptions are just far too general and onerous; what is needed is a more qualified principle—such as that people should be made moderately happy, fairly well educated, and not devoid of aesthetic appreciation. The other thing we should conclude is that if God is defined using the very strong principle, then God does not exist. I say this not because of the problem of (mild) evil but because moral excess is not an admirable quality, and God must be admirable in every way. If God thought that he was obliged to maximize the good in the very strong way, then I would think he was in error and didn’t understand the nature of moral obligation. But then he would not be a perfect being and hence not be God. Someone who can’t see that extreme pain imposes a duty to help is morally deficient, but someone who thinks that he is obliged to attend to every little discomfort is morally excessive. What if he felt this obligation intensely, berating himself for failures to carry out his moral duty? This is not sainthood but a form of madness. Moral excess is not a way of being moral.