This is how I respond to anyone who says to me that they are disappointed because they never win anything - You beat one hundred million swimmers in the most important race of your life.
That's a pretty damn good start on nobility.
It's a pretty good start into existence... didn't Hitler also win this race? And Osama bin Laden? Etc.? If this is all it takes to live a noble existence, I'm unimpressed.
True - many a privileged sperm have gone on to successfully complete their mission while hundreds of millions of others died in their wake, only to eventually become total douchebags to the other winners of similar swim meets. The fact that someone wouldn't be who they are today if not for being that winning sperm is still a nice thing to remind them of when they have little else to consider themselves "winners" over.
What people ultimately become doesn't erase what they may have been earlier in life. Although Adolf was a lazy slouch most of his life prior to ascending to totalitarian power, there was probably someone who admired him and his talents. Some of the worst examples of human morality still do. Nobility is in the eye of the beholder. I think I'm rambling now.
Also, it sounds like you ascribe to the Charlie Sheen philosophy on life: "duh, winning!" So, is that all it takes to be "noble"? We may admire people for their talents, but don't we really admire people for how they treat others? Doesn't "noble action" require acting for the sake of others?
I'm not the least bit competative, and Charlie Sheen makes my skin crawl. I concede that my initial comment doesn't really address your question. However, what one person considers noble, another may consider to be ignoble. Some consider veganism to be noble, others think it is pointless and unhealthy. Some consider Homeland Security to be a noble defense against terrorism, others consider it an attack on our personal freedoms. Some consider the murderer of an abortion doctor to be noble, most others would disagree. Noble, in the terms you are exploring, has a very slippery definition.
I was just joking about Charlie Sheen, but you make my point for me; if nobility is open to such subjective interpretation and is hard to define, maybe it is an illusion. However, while there are some things which are highly subjective (vegetarianism, abortion, etc.), what seems crucial is an understanding that we should be "good", specifically to other people besides just ourselves. I'm not really completely down on the idea of living a noble life, but I am surprised at how little people seem to care about actually doing so, judging in no small measure by how little they even understand the concept.
You could replace "noble" with the word "moral" and have a very similar dilema. I've had that argument with theists more often than I can count. One person's definition of morality is another person's definition of immorality. In Uganda, murdering gays is widely considered moral behavior. In Islamic extremist societies, killing infidels is considered not only moral, but neccessary. In Ireland, allowing a pregnant mother to die while her dying fetus kills her was a decision based exclusively on a twisted perception of morality. The one thing these all have in common is that religion is the foundation for all of them.
Indeed, the two words are virtually interchangeable. Are you arguing for a moral nihilism? Are you saying that there really is no such thing as morality, that all our behavior is "one and the same"?
Mine is not an argument for moral nihilism. Actually, my opinion is that the only way to legitimize the word "morality" is to precede it by the word "secular". Take away influences motivated by religious mysiticism, and you have a much less slippery concept. Generally, theists will still argue that there will still be instances unrelated to religion that are interpretted differently - but those are far more manageable.
For instance, outliers may argue that their idea of morality is a death penalty sentence for people who involuntarily cause the death of others - but a reasonable debate can occur over that issue that does not rely on some obscure religious doctrine, that by its own definition cannot be questioned. There is such a thing as morality, and it is generally the basis of how secular laws are formed. Not all laws are just, but at least they have the ability to evolve with time and with their changing environment, unlike religious doctrine.
You'll get no argument from me there. It goes without saying that a "system" of morality derived from wishful thinking is illusory and transparently egotistical.
If I remember right, the root of noble really means something like "good to know", or perhaps "worth knowing". I feel like if I am a person other folks consider worth knowing, that is noble enough for me. :)
But are they people worth knowing as well? Not that I think you are totally missing the mark (you're not), but if we base our worth on what others think of us, this becomes an infinite regress into... what? Nobility? I don't think so.