Alan Turing Needs No Pardon

Alan Turing, the intellectual godfather of modern computing and artificial intelligence and a genuine war hero, was gay when it was illegal to be so. His life was ruined by the laws of the country he had helped save during the war, driving him to suicide.

The British government has apologized to Turing, but last week the House of Lords refused to formally pardon him. Heather Cox Richardson makes a strong case that pardoning Turing would be inappropriate.

He doesn’t need a pardon; the society that made him a criminal does….Some things can never be put right. Pardoning a dead victim for the crime of being hated is a gift to the present, not the past. It lets modern-day people off the hook. They can be comfortable in their own righteousness, concluding that today’s injustices have nothing to do with such right-thinking people as they are. But they do….It’s way too late to pardon Alan Turing. And it’s way too early to pardon ourselves.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Alan Turing Needs No Pardon”

  1. Are all pardons of the form “The thing you may have done was wrong, but we now agree that for official purposes you didn’t do it”?

    And I’m not sure that pardons as a gift to the present are such a bad thing, even if we haven’t yet earned them. (See, for example, Theodore Sturgeon’s “Graveyard Reader”, which will be freely available in 2055, if the last paper copy hasn’t crumbled into dust before then.)

    1. Paul, you’re a hopeless optimist. Disney will have purchased yet another general copyright extension to protect the Mouse long before Sturgeon comes into the public domain.

      1. John Quiggin made the Swiftian suggestion that the least damaging option in IP law may be to carve out a Disney exception: ther Mouse has eternal copyyright, the rest Queen Anne’s 21 years.

  2. How about a pardon for every single person convicted of that and similar offenses? Why stop with Alan Turing, good sirs?

      1. If Oscar is in the good place, he has jack all use for a pardon.
        If Oscar went the other way, we shouldn’t be petitioning Parliament for pardons. Perhaps prayer?

  3. I love to be reminded that Adolf Hitler suffered one of his worse defeats at the hands of a gay man.

    The whole idea of harnessing the brainpower of a bunch of gentle nerds and turning them loose deciphering codes is so unFascist that Hitler could not have thought of it in a million years.

  4. Presumably one of the main purposes of a pardon is to remove a perceived stain on the reputation of the convicted person. (A pardon in anticipation of conviction, as Ford pardoned Nixon, is a different story.) I would think that conviction for activity that was a crime at the time but is no longer considered criminal is no stain on the reputation either. So there’s no point to a pardon – but there is a point to an apology, which is the theme of the article that Keith quotes.

    If the crime were less easy to distinguish, a pardon might be useful – say Jean Valjean’s conviction for theft, when he stole to feed his family. A conviction for theft would usually be dishonourable, but not in his case, so a pardon to remove it from his record would be useful. But those who think that homosexual activity should still be illegal will not want to pardon it, and those who think it should not be illegal won’t hold the conviction against him.

    That’s a separate issue again from pardoning the dead, when it can do them no good. If there are still survivors who are affected by their ancestor’s reputation, then it may make sense, but only for well-known ancestors, probably, considering the effort needed to produce the pardon many years later. Few cases are as clear as Turing’s (and Wilde’s…).

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