Strong opinions, weakly held

Alan Turing’s royal pardon

One piece of news this week is that Alan Turing received a royal pardon for his conviction for indecency in 1952 for indecency. The best book I read in 2013 was Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma. I keep intending to write more about the book, but on the occasion of Turing’s pardon, I’ll again encourage you to pick it up. Most articles about Turing’s life explain that he committed suicide after undergoing chemical castration after being convicted for homosexual acts, but Hodges’ conjecture about why Turing took his own life is far more nuanced and interesting. Here’s Hodges on the pardon:

Alan Turing suffered appalling treatment 60 years ago and there has been a very well intended and deeply felt campaign to remedy it in some way. Unfortunately, I cannot feel that such a ‘pardon’ embodies any good legal principle. If anything, it suggests that a sufficiently valuable individual should be above the law which applies to everyone else.

It’s far more important that in the 30 years since I brought the story to public attention, LGBT rights movements have succeeded with a complete change in the law – for all. So, for me, this symbolic action adds nothing.

A more substantial action would be the release of files on Turing’s secret work for GCHQ in the cold war. Loss of security clearance, state distrust and surveillance may have been crucial factors in the two years leading up to his death in 1954.

It’s a great book.


  1. I have not read the book but I know a little about Turing regardless, and from your brief summary here I feel I can well guess the thrust of the book, and if I am correct about that guess then I will agree with the author. If I am right then this would link Turing’s suicide with Aaron Swartz’s, the most cogent explanation of which I’ve seen is Justin Peters’, writing on Slate (though Peters links it to unpleasant situations, which is off the mark): http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/02/aaron_swartz_he_wanted_to_save_the_world_why_couldn_t_he_save_himself.single.html

    The psychological cornerstone of individuals like them is a sense of one’s capacity for self-determination as the most fundamental need. When outside forces are large enough (such as an overbearing prosecutorial system) to manage to curtail their ability to chart their own life’s course, to the extent that all prospects for life seem like mere (ineffectual) existence, death becomes the preferable choice.

  2. I think your comparison to Aaron Swartz is astute.

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