Why I support
Philosophy, autonomy and critical thinking
Liberal society founded on moral universalism, a free public sphere, and respect for the dignity of every individual is not a sure thing. The importance of these principles is evident when brought face-to-face with the polarization of modern society, which threatens their stability. At the center of attention are not just questions of inequality, xenophobia, or populism, but also the topic of the environment and climate change, which are the focal points of our responsibility towards future generations.
The cohesion of pluralistic societies is a great challenge for both societal and academic dialogue. In an era of deep conflicts of ideas, migration, and doubt cast on political authorities, it is necessary to strengthen cohesion not just through traditional pillars like the principles of justice and the rule of law, but also on the basis of generally acceptable consensual foundations that prioritize the shared human constants of our existence, such as moral reciprocity and the autonomy of identity. What is decisive is the moral value of our behavior, the purposeful nature of instrumental reason directed towards individual benefit.
The traditional connection between democracy and Christian values, which served as the foundation for Western civilization, has been forced to confront the fact of pluralism in politics, values, and religion. It is ever more difficult for people to find an anchoring for their ideas in a globally connected world of competing ideological and social models. A liberal identity founded on tolerance, the possibility of freely identifying with liberal ideals, is a privilege that we must defend.
Society, just like the behavior of an individual in the world, must be based on universal principles. The study of these principles’ philosophical origins is the focus of my intellectual interest. At the center of my attention is the moral core of concepts like reciprocity, autonomy, justice, and altruism – for their application fulfills an age-old ambition to make moral stances the foundation of both human and political behavior. The effort at hand is to identify the rules and models of behavior that contribute to societal balance and form an environment founded on mutual respect not just with those with whom we have a certain relationship, but with all members of society.
Philosophical and intellectual dialogue
In many respects, we today do not have any normative reflection of our rapidly changing world. We need to reinterpret terms like freedom, equality, justice, and reciprocity, concepts into which we must integrate new facts and events. Their current meaning obscures an absence of analytical thought, the loss of concentration on an essence hidden in a confusing deluge of information with neither author nor addressee. The rebirth of moral universalism can show us the way; its principles go beyond the horizons of our existence and, in this, provide it with meaning brought face-to-face with the transitory nature of our existence. These are significant impulses for philosophical and intellectual dialogue in our era.
We support this philosophical discourse on many levels. One example is the conference “Inequality, Religion, and Society: John Rawls and After” – devoted to the philosophical legacy of John Rawls, the most significant political philosopher of the 20th century – which took place in early 2019 at Harvard University. Also in preparation is a series of conferences devoted to probably the greatest philosophical genius of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the first of which will take place in 2019 at Oxford, the next in 2020 in Prague, and the last in 2021 in Vienna. Our foundation will also prepare a project together with Warsaw University in the form of several colloquia devoted to leading Central European intellectuals of the 20th century such as Isaiah Berlin, Leszek Kolakowski, Jan Patočka, and Karl Popper.
At the same time, there is no replacement for the role of public intellectuals, the community of ideas that has the ability to interpret the world in original and critical ways, pose fundamental questions for democracy such as whether we have power or power has us, and hold a mirror up to democracy. From history we know that many of them have not just remained in the world of ideas and surface-level criticism; in decisive moments, they have also been capable of sacrifice, an act that surpasses them and is the greatest expression of human responsibility. In this respect, we cannot forget their powerful weapon: the written word, the foundation of the Western cultural tradition. We contribute to the development of this tradition by supporting the publication of the works of important thinkers. One activity of ours that is symbolic of this is our strategic partnership with the Czech Centre of the International PEN Club, whose activity I have always admired and which has influenced the history of our country on multiple occasions.
Autonomy, reciprocity and civil society
When we speak of changing the political culture, such a change is unimaginable without a liberal transformation of civil society to make it a sphere of autonomy and universal values in the context of many-layered traditions. The public sphere, which is where ideas, cultural movements, and ambitions of power collide, forms at the intersection of civil and political society. The character of the fight over the public sphere, as well as the values that emerge victorious, is of formative importance for the nature of society as a whole. The ideal is reciprocal autonomy, which includes respect for the opinions of others, for their secular stances, and also for their religious conviction – and which, at the same time, contributes to societal cohesion.
I assume that a necessary precondition for social cohesion and individual autonomy is the principle of reciprocity, which is the moral basis of justice; that is, the crucial regulatory principle of the institutions of liberal society. Reciprocity is also a tool for alleviating inequality and the foundation of intergenerational responsibility, both in its symmetric form – for example, participation in the public life of an open and inclusive society, where the members of the society repay the society for providing them with education or offering them other forms of social integration – and in its asymmetric form, in the shape of care for future generations who currently cannot repay that care, but who, it is assumed, will do so in the future, once they adopt a reciprocal stance that always respects the claims of others and future generations. It is a permanent effort to find an agreement between one’s own viewpoint and the positions of others.
In looking for the balance between moral reciprocity and political justice, the paradigm of social inequality resonates strongly. In Rawls’s classical conception, everyone should have the same access to the basic collection of rights and freedoms, while inequality is acceptable only if it is remedied to the benefit of the most disadvantaged, those who are on the lowest rung of society. To put it concisely, improving the position of the poorest is the responsibility of those who are better off.
Wherever we see the middle classes growing poorer, becoming disillusioned, and facing destruction, people are radicalizing and turning towards populist negativism. What are – wrongly – proclaimed as the cause of inequality and enemies of the nation are migrants, minorities, globalization, and liberal politics. We often, from many sides, hear a sharp critique of capitalism; for example, Thomas Piketty’s recent appeal, calling for regulation, redistribution, and global forms of taxation, has resonated widely. Arguments calling for greater distribution of assets cannot be overlooked, of course, and deserve respect. We must always keep in mind, though, that the market environment is not just one of the causes of economic inequality, but also the primary source of societal wealth.
In the troubled history of Central Europe in the 20th century, civil society played an extraordinary role, serving as the home of brave individuals directed only by their conscience. From their moral autonomy grew a civil resistance, an ideal of resistance of antipolitical generations of the “shaken”, who repeatedly faced brutal suppression from those in power.
As early as the mid-20th century, Hungarian intellectual István Bibó called Central Europeans “phony realists” who had driven away Western-style idealists. These people grew powerful on a wave of existential fear, superficial nationalism, and political hysteria, and their activity had fatal consequences, the most tragic of which was, in the words of Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, the “captive mind”. In order to affirm their return to the civilizational tradition, countries in this region have to be, as Jan Patočka noted, “more Western that the West itself”, because they are more threatened and must fundamentally protect their brittle liberal identity, sometimes even from betrayal by its own elites.
The development of information technology and artificial intelligence creates an enormous space for authoritarian control of information on the one hand and manipulative political methods and populist enticement on the other. The tragedies of the previous century were quite often decisive moments when the masses were enchanted with utopias. We must make an effort for this century to belong not to leaders of mobs, but to an educated public, to rule by critical intellect. In other words, we must ensure that it be in the hands of those who wish to bring the political order into harmony with a moral order.
In a certain sense, Central Europe is a laboratory of the West, a self-contradictory area with great diversity in a small space, and its civil society is once again in confrontation with those who, through power-hungry egotism and often by invoking the most selfish human emotion – fear of the strange and unknown – are trying to hold onto power at the expense of the entire community.
For these reasons, too, the foundation will continue to support the Festival of Freedom, the Václav Havel Library, and the Czech Christian Academy.
Education and critical thinking
Given the development of biotechnology and artificial intelligence and the impact of the modern way of life on climate change, we can have a significantly greater influence on the fate of future generations than past generations could have on ours. It is our responsibility not just to stave off substantial climate change, but also to hand over to future generations just institutions and respect for the autonomy of individuals in the digital age. The path towards this goal leads through support for education as the complete formation of the character. At the forefront of my interests is the idea of the university and its irreplaceable role as the paramount institution of liberal education – one that does not merely produce specialists, but is also, at the same time, a place for cultivating critical discussion, Socratic dialogue, and refining ethical stances. Directed towards this end is our support of the University of Oxford, the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, the Centre for Political Philosophy, Ethics and Religion at Charles University, and also the provision of stipends to selected students in the humanities.
Independent media serve as a guarantee of a free public sphere, and the foundation contributes to its defense in its collaboration with the New York Times on the Athens Democracy Forum and its support of the Association of European Journalists.
Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Sekyra Foundation