On Values, Both Material and Spiritual Ones
I met Mr. Sekyra for the first time at the colloquia dedicated to John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, however little known and appreciated in the Czech environment. The Sekyra Group that supports the Centre for Political Philosophy, Ethics and Religion (CPPER) has also supported organising the colloquia. Despite the fact that Mr. Sekyra is still actively involved in his property development company, he presented a paper discussing Rawls’s principles of justice and their relationship towards reciprocity and altruism. The extent and the quality of Mr. Sekyra’s paper received appreciation from theoretical scientists and inspired a stimulating discussion. Mr. Sekyra is also working on a book addressing this theme and later this year, he is planning to present his research at the Conference at the Harvard University. Mr. Sekyra is concerned about the polarization of liberal societies and he sees the need to formulate moral and political principles that would strengthen the cohesion of plural and multicultural public space.
One week later, I came to interview Mr. Sekyra at his office at the Sun Tower building in Prague. I had a chance to admire not only a beautiful view but also visualization of future development projects, also in the surrounding neighbourhood of Rohan City. Mr. Sekyra apologized for being late due to a teleconference held with the representatives of New York Times, as he is busy preparing a panel for the prestige global conference, the Athens Democratic Forum. The panel will be dedicated to problems democracy is facing in Central Europe, threats of populism and xenophobia nationalism. The aim is to present a fact that such tendencies threatening the concept of open liberal democracy do not represent a regional issue, but truly the global one.
Our third (unplanned) meeting took place at the launch of the book published by the Centre of Independent Journalism, also supported by Mr. Sekyra. I could see that Mr. Sekyra fully lives his life purpose that not only buildings, but also thoughts, should be left as a legacy. And it is such purpose that we discussed during the interview, together with philosophy and thinking, however the business world was not left aside, as it often intersected our conversation.
Mr. Sekyra, you being part of two worlds – academic and entrepreneurial – is quite rare for the Czech environment, contrary to the world where such interconnection happens more often. How do you manage bridging the two spheres? And how were you received by the academics?
You are right, the intersection of both worlds is more frequent there and it brings various benefits to both sides. Someone who comes from the entrepreneurial world transfers a wide range of empirical experience which can be subsequently generalised upon. And such generalization then allows to present a universal dimension that is possible to address in theoretical discussion, in theory. As far as me being accepted by scientists, on one hand they consider me to a certain extent a visitor in their environment, on the other hand the most respected specialist in the fields of political or moral philosophy are very helpful and support my work on my upcoming book. I have the feeling that they enjoy debating with me and they consider it beneficial with regards to my specific experience and point of view. I studied philosophy of law and I have been actively involved in this field. I am engaged not only with the Czech environment, but also at Oxford and Harvard. I also recommend such open attitude to Czech universities. Being open to thoughts of people outside the academic sphere, who combine certain theoretic knowledge with empirical experience, is stimulating for the academic debate.
What is the reaction of your colleague entrepreneurs and competitors with regards to your academic activities? Are they looking forward to you leaving the real estate business? Or are they supportive and appreciative of your activities?
Well, I am definitely not leaving the real estate business. Sekyra Groups is currently preparing projects in the total amount of 1 000 000 square kilometres, consisting of office, commercial and residential properties. We are currently developing four projects in the larger centre of Prague where new quarters will be built. At Smíchov, Žižkov, Rohan Island and in Dejvice, we are going to build modern and green Prague centres which will represent a true alternative to the historical part of the metropolis. There will be parks, schools and public buildings. As it was mentioned, I dedicate considerable amount of time to philosophy and studying in libraries, but managing the Group still takes the largest portion of my management time. I concentrate on new opportunities, growing efficiency of existing projects and on co-operation with new clients. Some colleagues and even business partners still consider my passion a bit strange but as someone enjoys golf, yachts, or airplanes, I enjoy philosophical books. I believe that not only should we leave buildings as a legacy, but also thoughts. Particularly ideas, if they are original enough, might have longer life span when compared to buildings.
We have met at the colloquia dedicated to John Rawls who is not well known in the Czech Republic. What particularly do you find inspiring?
I am interested in the relationship between morale and politics. The notion of justice and interpretation of justice represents the central theme of political philosophy. I personally believe that it is important to interpret justice as reciprocity. I consider the notion of reciprocity as the most relevant one. In order to be able to fulfil the key criteria of the cohesion principle or homogeneity that a society needs to survive, we need, in addition to the principle of justice (as John Rawls addressed), two other principles: reciprocity and altruism. Only the combination of the three normative principles paves way to creating a cohesive society. I am a supporter of moral universalism and so I tend to believe that the majority of the society should identify with such principles, in order to create an environment where we would feel freedom and which will offer what Aristoteles used to call a good life. The fact that this is not happening nowadays and therefore we see populism spread not only across Europe but also in the US. Societies are ethnocentrically shutting down, they are being integrated by negative rather than positive factors, the most visible being xenophobic nationalism. I consider such development truly alarming.
For John Rawls, the biggest political thinker of the 20th century, the key principle was justice in the sense of fairness in public space. Justice should not be understood as a mere decision of an authority in power, but I maintain that justice should be a reciprocal relationship between people themselves as well as between citizens and an authority. Only such approach can guarantee harmonic development of a liberal society. Rawls also tended to place a big emphasis on the principle of freedom equality and on equal access to rights that are linked to freedom. Rawls maintained that if inequality was to happen, then it should be in favour of those who are the least advantaged, so in favour of those reaching the so-called bottom.
Current period is often characterized as an era suffering from the lack of leaders. How do you perceive it?
Many politicians perceive politics as power and deeds, in terms of gaining and holding on to power. Recently, I have read an interview with Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Mr. Kaczynski revealed that he admires Carl Schmitt and his realism, Mr. Schmitt was an influential German political philosopher in 1930s and also a main critic of liberal democracy. The very fact that Schmitt’s realism is mentioned as “exemplary” politics is very disconcerting to me. I consider the main deficit the fact that morals and its principles have fallen out of the perception of politics as such. Without the transfer of moral principles into political principles politics becomes empty and only a fight for power. If the public sees that many politicians make their own personal interest instead of public interest a priority, then they tend to lose faith in politics. Let us not forget that the representation of public interest is the main task of politics and politicians.
It seems to me that such thoughts used to be openly presented by Václav Havel…
Yes, under the influence of philosophers of Patočka and Levinas…Nowadays, we are experiencing something that I would characterise “an ordinary democratic day” or being tired of normal democratic politics that does not represent any larger vision or values but only concentrates on specific voting or budgetary priorities. People are lacking any cross-over and if politics is lacking a cross-over than it ceases to be something to believe in. This can be seen on the European Union project where it is much more difficult to identify with the European idea. The United States is much more successful, as “the American idea” is not only much more appealing but also more tangible. An idea is, given its very own notion, a transcendental issue; it surpasses the ordinary politics and has the ability to inspire, but when it is missing, disillusion is inevitable. I do not wish politics to be reduced to power and deeds as such notion is narrowly a pragmatic one. The task of political philosophy is to stress and formulate principles allowing to introduce both content as well as cross-over. I have a more and more intensive feeling that modern, particularly continental philosophy of the 20th century, suffers from deficit of ethical thinking, because the most important representatives such as Heidegger or Wittgenstein in fact had pushed ethics out of philosophy. We need to foster authentic ethical theories based on universal principles, and that is what I call reciprocity ethics in my texts.
As we are discussing difficult moments, which difficult moments do you consider formative ones for yourself?
Real estate business is a cyclical business and so in 2007 we experienced one of the deepest financial and real estate crises in modern history. We benefitted from a quality management team and from quality risk management. We witnessed some of our big competitors not being able to make it. Today, we pay more attention than in the past not only to the return of invested capital but also to risk profile of every project. The second lesson learned thanks to the crisis was the finding that there are additional values side by side to the material ones. It was the very philosophy that brought a cross-over and authenticity to my life and that is why I dedicate more time to it than in the past.
What are your future visions?
I wish to dedicate energy to both my life priorities and to big development projects that will change the way Prague looks. I personally very much care about the best notion of architecture. At Smíchov, we have launched a big architectonic competition for the first time in Prague and involved more than 10 international architects. The new quarter should be a pride of the 21st century Prague. The second challenge is thinking about philosophy and working on my book that should be a result of my reflections. I hope to publish it within the next two years.
By Linda Štucbartová
Luděk Sekyra is a leading Czech businessman. He has been working with Oxford University for many years. He is a Foundation Fellow and a member of the Board of Regents of Harris Manchester College. He is also a member of the Vice Chancellor Circle. Luděk Sekyra is also a member of the American Political Science Association (APSA).
In 2014, he opened the Sekyra House student center and theTomáš Halík Room lecture hall at Oxford University. The same year, he supported the installation of Havel’s Place in Oxford University park. Together with Tomáš Halík, he initiated the creation of the Center for the Study of Political Philosophy, Ethics and Religion at the Faculty of Arts of the Charles University, where he is the Chairman of the Academic Council. He actively supports the collaboration of the Center with the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University and the Center for European Studies at Harvard University.
Sekyra has been interested in the field of political and moral philosophy for a long time. He is a frequently published author and is currently working on a book about reciprocal fairness. He also significantly supports interfaith dialogues at the academic level (for example the Public Sphere, Ethics and Religious Diversity global conference that will take place in 2017), as well as practical projects in leading European cities (for example the Foyer youth center in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels www.foyer.be).