The third level is societal virtue which is founded on the idea that an excellent human being reciprocates for the benefits of society by fulfilling duties and being of service. My list of reasonable duties is listed in Table 1 of the Appendix, though some readers may want to craft their own. An inventory of duties informs those obligations that are inexcusable no matter the personal sacrifice or inconvenience. Regarding service, a good rule of thumb is that such efforts should contribute to the maximum enrichment of all at the lowest possible opportunity cost always factoring in the categorical imperative that every person be treated as an end and never as a means. Key prerequisites are knowledge of goodness, a moral compass, recognition and acceptance of duty, integrity, discipline, and prudence.
Social virtue by all is vital to the function of a democratic state, but there is much to learn from extraordinary virtue in the forms of the saint, the hero, the great leader, and the sage. Each epitomizes one of the four classical Greek virtues; the saint – temperance, the hero – courage, the leader – justice, and the sage – wisdom. Virtue and human purpose overlap and reinforce each other in their shining examples.
The fourth level of virtue in a fully meaningful life is beyond humanity: Nature, the Earth, science, and the cosmos. A reverence for life and living in harmony with other creatures and with our planet is foundational although there are pragmatic limits on our responsibilities. Thus it appears ethical to limit pests in our immediate environment and to consume animal products. However utilitarian rules and some imperatives apply: for example we should not exploit the environment without considering ecosystems nor intentionally cause the extinction of even disagreeable species.
Cosmic virtue also extends to science where human excellence includes careful study and analysis as the means to truth about the physical world and our interactions with it. Open dialogue and freedom of speech permit the voicing of pseudoscience by persons of lesser virtue, but intelligent, moral individuals must learn to reject it and help others see its fallacies. Meanwhile science and technology must be used for ethical purposes and blocked from evil uses.
The final dimension of cosmic virtue is adoption of the cosmic perspective, a term I borrowed from Neil de Grasse Tyson. For me there are two components; first the external actions of study of the universe including perhaps participation as amateur scientist, searching for extra-terrestrial life as a means to expanding our understanding of the cosmos, and exploration and colonization of space. The other component is internal and includes mirroring the order and benevolence of the universe, enlarging one’s worldview, and recognizing our limited but singular role in the universe and our kinship with all things in existence. We can learn the secrets of the cosmos through the examples of great scientists like Galileo and Einstein or great spiritualists like Laozi or Spinoza.
At the end of the day, virtue at these four levels is not just human excellence, but the defining feature of our species. The attainment of a meaningful life starts with the simple decision to choose a life of virtue – to aim for moral excellence and yes even perfection. It depends more on the choosing than on the succeeding. Think about it!