Mr Sekyra visiting Oxford
Mr Sekyra visiting Oxford.

Oldest professorship in philosophy renamed after 400th anniversary donation

A prestigious Oxford professorship in moral philosophy has been endowed following a £2.8 million donation from the Sekyra Foundation.

The White’s Chair of Moral Philosophy was Oxford’s first professorial post in philosophy when it was established 400 years ago. It has now become the Sekyra and White’s Professorship of Moral Philosophy in recognition of the Sekyra Foundation’s gift. The Foundation was established by Czech businessman Luděk Sekyra to support human rights, moral universalism, liberal values and civil society.

Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said: “We at Oxford are proud of the long standing links between our philosophers and Prague, dating back to Jan Hus translating banned works by John Wycliffe in the 14th and 15th centuries. It is wonderful that in its 400th year the Chair has become the Sekyra and White’s Professorship of Moral Philosophy. We are very grateful to Luděk and the Sekyra Foundation for this generous gift.”

Mr Luděk Sekyra, Founder of The Sekyra Foundation and owner of the Sekyra Group, said: “Nothing could more aptly characterize the tradition and intellectual excellence that we associate with the name of Oxford University than the professorship of moral philosophy established in 1621 by Thomas White, the oldest university chair in philosophy.

“I often wonder why we so rarely ask ourselves how to live a good life, what constitutes moral progress, what our responsibility is towards future generations, why the public sphere is not also a sphere of morality, and how the continuity of humanity is affected by technology and global climate change. These challenges, which have, among others, been the subject of my discussions with philosophers at Oxford, help us uncover deeper levels of reality, the essence of the lives we lead. I am glad that I could contribute to this dialogue."

This gift builds on a long history of collaboration between Czech and Oxford-based philosophers. Jan Hus was inspired by and built on the works of John Wycliffe in the 14th and 15th centuries, and Wycliffe’s teachings inspired the Hussite movement. Students of medicine were invited to finish their studies at Oxford after Czech universities were closed in 1939. In the late 1970s under the Communist regime, Oxford philosophers visited underground philosophy seminars in Prague. In the 1980s, Oxford professors founded the Jan Hus Educational Foundation.

The Sekyra and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy leads the study and development of moral philosophy within Oxford and supervises doctoral and Master’s students in the subject. The postholder also chairs the Oxford Moral Philosophy Seminar, which has hosted the world’s leading moral philosophers in recent decades. Previous holders of the Chair have contributed to debates around the biggest challenges facing humanity. Professor John Broome continues to publish widely on climate change. Professor Bernard Williams worked on royal commissions and government committees, including on drug abuse, gambling, social inequality and obscenity and film censorship. The current Sekyra and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy, Professor Jeff McMahan, explores moral questions such as war, abortion and our treatment of animals.

Professor Chris Timpson, Chair of the Philosophy Faculty Board at Oxford University, said: “The names of the holders of this professorship ring out today as touchstones of rigorous, humane and urgent philosophical enquiry. They have stoked revolutions in our philosophical and moral understanding, and have trained generations of research students to the highest of standards. The Sekyra Foundation’s significant contribution ensures that this work will continue – and advance – long into the future.”

Professor Jeff McMahan, Sekyra and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University, said: “For much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Oxford has been the best place in the world for the study of moral philosophy. Part of the reason for this is that some of the holders of the White’s Professorship of Moral Philosophy – for example, Sir David Ross, R.M. Hare, and Sir Bernard Williams – are widely regarded as having been the best and most important moral philosophers in the world during the time when they held the Professorship. The endowment by the Sekyra Foundation of what will become the Sekyra and White’s Professorship ensures that this distinguished, 400-year-old position will finally be secure for the future.”

A public event on Thursday 21 October marked the anniversary and the gift. This was a discussion on the topic ‘Is procreation morally wrong? Is it obligatory?’ between Professor Jeff McMahan, the current postholder, and Oxford University philosophers Professor John Broome and Professor Hilary Greaves. Oxford’s Professor Alison Hills chaired the debate. Mr Sekyra attended the event, which can be viewed at this link.

The Sekyra Foundation has previously supported developments across Oxford University and its colleges. This includes the construction of the Sekyra House, a student centre at Harris Manchester College, and the installation of a bench honouring Václav Havel in the University Parks. The Foundation also provides stipends for postgraduate students of philosophy and legal theory, including human rights issues.