Should Alan Turing Be “Pardoned”?

Today Alan Turing, computer science pioneer, inventor of the “Turing Test”, and Second World War Hero, was pardoned by the British crown. The pardon repeals his conviction for “gross indecency” – he admitted to having a homosexual relationship after his house was burgled by an acquaintance of his lover, and was promptly prosecuted and plied with hormone treatment which made him impotent. He lost his security clearance and could no longer advise the government on cryptography and, two years later, he died in what an inquest determined to be suicide.

Of the pardon The Independent writes:

nearly 60 years after his suicide from cyanide poisoning at the age of 41, Alan Turing has been officially pardoned  by the Queen under the little-known Royal Prerogative of Mercy.

The pardon comes after a change of heart by ministers who had previously insisted that Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence.

I support wholeheartedly the efforts to rehabilitate the good name of Turing, who was a genius and a national hero. I support the campaign for the pardon and the urge behind it: it is rooted in a genuine desire to vindicate a great figure in the history of science who was the victim of prejudice. The fact this pardon was awarded demonstrates the great social progress which has been made in only a few decades – progress which is to be welcomed.

Yet the nature of the pardon makes me wary: we should not forget that the party who committed the true crime in this instance was the British government, for prosecuting and chemically castrating a man for an “offense” which was an offense against no one. That this “pardon” was enacted through the Royal Prerogative of Mercy strikes me wrong, as if clemency is being provided someone who has indeed done something wrong. Mercy is offered to the guilty, after all, not the innocent.

In this instance the party who should sue for mercy is the crown itself, for legitimating a wicked conviction. Whether we grant a pardon is up to us.

About James Croft

Dr. James Croft is the Outreach Director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and completed his Ed.D at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.