Decoding Apologies To Alan Turing: Is Post-Mortem Pardon Meaningless?

Decoding Apologies To Alan Turing

Is Post-Mortem Pardon Meaningless?

By Professor Nick Smith (University of New Hampshire)

December 31, 2014                                                         Picture: Charis Tsevis/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s exclusive series on the Alan Turing Biopic The Imitation Game

In addition to being arguably as crucial to the war effort as those working on the Manhattan Project, Turing founded computational technology and effectively invented digitization.[1] One can make a compelling case that Turing should be counted amongst the greatest contributors to human progress, ever, yet the secrecy surrounding much of his highly classified work obscured his contributions. Consider for example his death: apparent suicide by eating an apple allegedly laced with cyanide. Remarkably, the apple was never tested. This invited speculation. Some argue that the poisoning resulted from a lab accident and should not be considered self-inflicted. Others call for an investigation into whether he was murdered. The suicide believers wonder if he staged his death to mirror his favorite fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. Although Steve Jobs denied it, others speculate that Apple’s logo alludes to Turing’s demise. Now glamorize such a juicy story into a Hollywood blockbuster, and we have quite a story of a short and brilliant philosophical life.

This paper, however, would like to call attention to the rather ordinary aspect of Turing’s life. He was gay, and like many homosexuals he suffered terribly for it at the hands of his government. In January 1952, Turing called police to report that a burglar had stolen his beloved pocket watch given to him by his grandfather. Honest to a fault, Turing shared the details of his love life with investigators to help them recover his belonging. Instead of helping him, police charged the professor with gross indecency because he admitted to having private consensual sexual relations with another man. An estimated 50,000 others were prosecuted in the U.K. under such homophobic codes, and the state jailed Oscar Wilde under the same law as Turing. Turing openly admitted to his homosexuality and as punishment the state offered him a choice between imprisonment or hormone treatment—what we now refer to as chemical castration. He chose the latter, which predictably wrought havoc on his body and mind. The conviction also cost the war hero his security clearances and barred him from traveling to the U.S. and elsewhere. His housekeeper found him dead with the apple in 1954.

Sixty two years later most of us can readily see the stupidity of prosecuting Turing for his homosexuality, and his rising status as war and high-tech hero make it seem especially backwards that he suffered such indignities at the hands of the nation he helped save from totalitarian hate-mongers. As political winds blow across the flame of the Imitation Game, officials predictably seek to strike while it’s hot and address the Turing debacle with apologies and pardons. In what follows I will attempt to explain why the gestures are not exactly worthless or pointless, as some have claimed. Like most examples of such gestures, the apologies to Turing provide some kinds of meaning in some instances but not in others.

Although most of the recent attention has gone to the Queen’s August 2014 pardon of Turing, Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered what most describe as an apology to Turning in 2009. Because of its significance, I cite it in full:

“2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing. Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later. Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better”.

In August 2014, Turing receive pardon via “Royal Prerogative of Mercy by the Queen.” The Queen pronounced that she was “Graciously pleased to extend Our Grace and Mercy unto the said Alan Mathison Turing and to grant him Our Free Pardon posthumously in respect of the said convictions.” Justice secretary Chris Grayling announced the pardon with the following statement:

“Dr. Alan Turing was an exceptional man with a brilliant mind. His brilliance was put into practice at Bletchley Park during the second world war, where he was pivotal to breaking the Enigma code, helping to end the war and save thousands of lives. His later life was overshadowed by his conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory and which has now been repealed. Dr. Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man”.

What should we make of these gestures? Over my two books on apologies a few central questions emerge when considering political acts of contrition. The remainder of this essay will consider how those meanings help us decode this example.


1) Has the political apology corroborated the factual record?

 We can first ask whether the apologizer explains what she did with an appropriate degree of specificity to establish a record of the events salient to the injury. In many cases “what happened” will be obvious to both the victim and the offender, but the victim desires a public admission confirming her account. In other cases, much of the story may be opaque to the victim. Vague assertions that “mistakes were made” will typically not provide the explanations we seek. Those who volunteer information regarding adverse events early in the process gain credibility; those who concede damaging facts only after they can no longer deny them lose credibility.

Here we learn nothing that has not been in the public record for many years. Harms caused by collectives such as nations can present particularly challenging factual investigations as webs of causation weave throughout the organization to such an extent that overtime, even leaders of the group may be unclear regarding exactly how they came to be causing such harms. Establishing a record may take time. In particular, the circumstances surrounding Turing’s prosecution and death have long been suspicious. Is there more to the story, and might it require government cooperation and a team of investigative historians to get to the bottom of it? I do not mean to stoke conspiracy, the McCarthy-era paranoia about “perverts” going rogue and trading military secrets for gay Soviet sex makes one wonder.

Moreover, the apology and pardon curiously do not name any of the people at fault for Turing’s suffering. Individual people harmed him, and those wrongdoers were likely acting from insidious homophobia. Yet we learn nothing new about the wrongdoers and what motivated them. Instead the evil is attributed to “unjust laws,” as if they sprung from nature rather than being the product of hateful agents of the state.

The Prime Minister mentions “many thousands” of other people punished under these laws, which seems a rather minimizing way to describe 50,000 or so people criminalized for consensual adult sex. Those victims go unnamed and remain unrecognized as individuals, which I imagine leaves many disappointed that the stories of “commoner” homosexuals do not warrant being told by the state.


2) Has the political apology accepted blame for the offense?

The acceptance of blame constitutes a core meaning of apologies. It also presents some of the most complex challenges, especially when applied to groups that commit mass injuries and where tenuous chains of commands obscure moral networks.

Most basically, a categorically apologetic offender will accept that the injury is her fault. She does not offer mere sympathy for the harm nor does she view herself as an innocent or even heroic person “taking responsibility” for solving problems not of her making. Rather, and in accordance with commonsense notions of proximate causation, she admits to unjustifiably causing the harm. Neither the Queen nor the Prime Minister accepts personal blame for harming Turing. Indeed, they do not suggest that anyone in particular deserves blame.

Although groups of people can act together in various respects, victims should be wary of those who attempt to shift blame from the individual to the collective or something like “unjust laws.” In many cases we can rather easily identify who within a collective deserves blame. Some intentionally ordered underlings to prosecute homosexuals. Others executed those orders. Some looked the other way. Some should have paid more attention. Some lied to cover it up. Several individual people committing multiple interlocking wrongs caused Turing’s suffering, but often in collective apologies the individuals disappear into the collective, as if the state had a will entirely of its own. The hypocrisy of allowing the collective to shoulder one’s culpability becomes especially odious when we see it from those who are first in line to demand recognition—especially in the form of pay raises and elections—when things go well. Like most of us, leaders are quick to accept credit for their work in the form of demanding high salaries or reelection; when the pendulum of accountability swings we should be equally willing to accept blame.

Specificity in moral causation can also help to shatter claims that victims should view large-scale events caused by human agents as somehow accidental. Rather than viewing Turing’s harms as some sort of historical accidents for which we can prepare but not prevent, precise attributions of blame identifies the need for reform at various levels. Differentiating culpability in these senses offers a much greater awareness of how individual actions aggregate to cause large-scale harm and thereby increase our chances of preventing further harm like those suffered by Turing.


3) Does the political apology possess appropriate standing to apologize and accept blame?

 A categorically apologetic wrongdoer accepts blame and provides the apology, rather than outsourcing the work of contrition to a proxy such as an attorney or spokesperson. Third parties can express important meanings, for instance corroborating the victim’s account of the event, apportioning blame, vindicating moral principles, legitimating suffering, and providing redress. In most cases, however, apologies from third parties fail to convey certain kinds of important meanings. Just as my public relations manager cannot exercise for me, she cannot undergo moral transformation and the entailed negative emotions on my behalf. I cannot offload my blame to her.

Generally speaking, individuals with both obvious membership in the organization as well as a high rank in that organization—what I call “membership with rank”—make the strongest claims to possess standing to apologize for the organization. When a member with rank like the Queen or Prime Minister asserts standing to apologize on behalf of the group, we understand the leaders’ contrition most clearly when we appreciate how their assertions track the actual views of their constituencies as well as the degree of disagreement tolerated within the organization. Disagreeing with a leader’s apology could be considered a grave offense in some authoritarian regimes. Publically challenging your boss’ expression of contrition might get you fired. Given recent debates regarding gay marriage, it seems that we do not have anything like a consensus that Turing is owed an apology.

Although apologies from current leaders for the mistakes of past leaders convey important meanings regarding the contemporary values and intentions of the institution, this differs considerably from a leader possessing the sort of standing that allows her to accept blame on behalf of her predecessors. If an international human rights tribunal decided to prosecute someone for Turing’s treatment, surely the Queen and Prime Minister would be quick to explain that they should not be personally help responsible.

If neither the Queen nor the Prime Minister admit fault, and further if they do not identify anyone who deserves blame, we want to be clear about the absence of such meaning. Apologies without blame are a rather cheap way to purchase moral credit.


4) Does the political apology identify each harm, the principles underlying each harm, and share a commitment to the principles underlying each harm?

I look to see it that the apologizer takes care to identify all of the harms at issues rather than collapsing multiple wrongs into an undifferentiated assertion that she somehow acted badly in such a way that we cannot discern precisely what she admits. Does she only name the most undeniable offense in light of the accumulated evidence? Does she apologize for only the lesser offense, perhaps because doing so maximizes the strategic advantage of appearing to be contrite while minimizing the political risks?

The fact the Turing was singled out for an apology and pardon rightly offends people. His suffering was typical in the systematic campaign against homosexuals, and the thousands of others terrorized by these laws go unnamed. Does Turing receive recognition primarily because of his stardom, adding further insult to the tens of thousands of others who lack the high profile to warrant decency?

Here we can also seek to understand the extent to which the offender understands why the offense is offensive and thereby makes explicit the values at issue. When the offender understands the principle, this helps her to identify other behaviors that fall within its provenance. Whether through internal discussions within the organization or in the public discourse surrounding the harms, the process of understanding why actions invoke the demand for an apology can occasion self-reflection and institutional review regarding first principles. Sometimes this process provides an opportunity for an institution to reflect on norms endorsed by its predecessors that have since become less generally accepted. Turing’s case provides a powerful example—we see how hatred can lead to such awful treatment of someone so remarkable and sympathetic.

In collective contexts, apologies can serve as declarations of institutional policy. A group might update their charter to conform to evolving social norms or to reflect changes in leadership. A declaration can also restate and emphasize a commitment to long-held values from which members have deviated. Again, the process of discussing, revising, and renewing commitments to core values supports important objectives even if the collective or individual does not accept blame for the harm at issue. But this should lead us to wonder: what exactly is the Queen’s position on homosexuality, especially as she invokes the religious language of bestowing “Grace and Mercy” on Turing?

Reading the statements from the Queen and Prime Minister one cannot help but wonder: do they believe that the primary failure is dishonoring a war hero, or is it the more general horror of the homophobic laws that they reject? Singling out Turing suggests the former.

One gets the sense that the state fails to appreciate the utter grotesqueness of this: Turing helped defeat the Nazis, the Nazis that we loathe so much in part because of their sterilization and castration of non-Aryans. Then his own country castrates him. That irony must have compounded the pain for Turing, especially as he tried to process this with a mind struggling with the emotional maelstrom brought about by hormone treatment. A pardon from the Queen—as if Turing had done something truly wrong but the Queen will exercise her majesty to excuse him—reeks of condescension. The pardon makes it as if Turing, rather than the agents of the state, is the wrongdoer in need of forgiving.


5) Does the political apology recognize victims as moral interlocutors?

When offenders treat their victims as moral interlocutors, they treat them with respect. They treat them as humans deserving dignity rather than as mere means to some end. They understand and interact with the injured not as abstractions—numbers on a balance sheet or statistical misfortunes–but as concrete and particular individuals who think and feel. The wrongdoers understand the need to reach out and apologize specifically to the victims, rather than to generally expressing contrition to the media or some third party that they believe hold the most power over them. When I harmed you I saw you as somehow unworthy of sufficient consideration, but now I turn to you in humility to discuss the very values and principles that give meaning to my life.

Collective harms present various challenges and opportunities in this regard. Often in cases of large-scale injuries the offense stems not from an aberrant misdeed somehow out of character for the offender, but rather from a kind of systematic disregard of the interests of a group of people. Recognizing victims and members of the community with equal worth can provide especially important meaning in the aftermath of such degradation

In some cases interlocution with the victim will not be possible. Turing and many of the victims are long dead. Others live on, yet they go unnamed and without specific recognition. Most of the primary offenders are also dead. It would have conveyed a certain kind of meaning if those who most directly tormented Turing and other victims looked them in the eyes and conveyed their contrition. We do not have that here.

But again, perhaps the most galling aspect of these apologies lies in the fact the many victims of these policies are alive and waiting for recognition. Will the Queen or Prime Minister speak to them directly, as Bill Clinton personally addressed some victims and family members of the Tuskegee experiments?


6) Does the political apology express and demonstrate categorical regret?

 Categorical regret requires the offender to understand that she has committed a moral error and that she wishes she could reverse. Categorical regret thus differs from empathy for the consequences of what the actor continues to endorse as a justified decision. Categorical regret for institutional harms can raise complex issues when such organizations look back on their multivariable cost-benefit analyses that sought to balance many variables. Brown seems to regret this homophobic era and wishes it could be undone. The Queen’s pardon leaves this open, as if perhaps we needed to prosecute Turing given the times but all things considered we feel bad about it now even though we did the right thing then.


7) Has the political apology been performed properly?

 The instance of uttering an apology is in many ways the beginning of a process rather than the end, and we should not look too narrowly at apologies as speech acts, but here we can reconsider the features clustered around the speech act and how they lay foundations for the meanings they promise. A full discussion of the who, what, where, and when of political apologies is beyond the scope of this paper, but notice how public apologies can suffer in various ways from failing to address the victims directly. Some political offenders seem to apologize to the media, regulatory bodies, the electorate, or other third parties rather than to victims. Failing to acknowledge victims in this way can cause new harms by denying victims status as moral interlocutors. In cases like this with thousands of victims, reaching individual victims presents obvious logistical challenges. Especially if they are, like Turing, dead.


8) To what extent does the political apology demonstrate reform?

Apologies are treatments not cures, beginnings not conclusions. Apologies make promises. The individual categorically apologetic offender forbears from reoffending over her lifetime; the collective forbears from reoffending for the remainder of its existence. The categorically apologetic offender demonstrates reform with a record of resisting temptations to reoffend. The more temptations she overcomes over a longer duration, the more evidence we have of her reform and the more confidence we can have in our ability to predict her behavior. The process of publically or privately performing an apology therefore sets a stage. The lifetime of behavior enacts the moral transformation. Such covenants set forth the conditions of future relations and can lay the foundations for large groups to live in peace rather than in retribution and fear.

In both of these gestures we have recognition that homophobic laws should be eliminated. We also have a record of some success in those efforts, for example the repeal of the indecency law under which both Turing and Oscar Wilde were punished. Is this enough? Surely some will find it insufficient, and gay marriage provides a test case for commitment to reform.

Who makes and keeps the promise to reform in political apologies? Will the Queen and Prime Minister personally see to these efforts? Imagine social conservatism surges and homophobia returns to political fashion. This could easily drain much of the meaning from a state apology to Turing.

Victims should not overvalue bald assurances from political entities that they will “do everything within their power to make sure it never happens again.” Rather than accepting such ambiguous and non-committal assertions at face value, reviewers should evaluate as many data points as possible to judge the commitment. Have they begun the reform? How do they plan to undertake the changes? What measures ensure that they will complete the changes? Like many aspects of apologies, answers to these questions benefit from the passage of time as offenders demonstrate or undermine their commitment to reform.


9) Has the political apology provided appropriate redress?

The categorically apologetic offender provides appropriate redress for the harms she caused. In most cases the sooner she provides this redress the better because the victims will typically continue to suffer the unmitigated effects of the harm until some form of redress assuages the injury. The sooner she returns property, for example, the shorter the duration of the deprivation. Determining what constitutes appropriate redress often proves contentious. We can address qualitative and quantitative issues here: What kinds of redress are appropriate? How much redress suffices?

So we must ask: what redress did Turing or his descendants receive? What redress did similar victims receive? In particular, what redress came from the hand of those who harmed them? The punitively minded should be disappointed that those who caused such harms will never be punished for doing so. Taking practical responsibility requires the offender to directly confront the harm she caused and to invest her own life in caring for her victim. She subjects herself to the emotional pain of grappling with the consequences of her actions. Victims may consider this pain important on retributive grounds because she deserves to take a hard look and be haunted by the suffering of someone like Turing. If we understand redress as a process that offenders should undergo as a means to the end of their moral transformation—or as some essential element of their moral transformation—then delegating redress frustrates that objective. The offender’s direct participation in providing redress also reinforces her treatment of the victim as moral interlocutor, enacting the understanding that her time is too valuable or that somehow she is too important to care for the person she harmed.

The temptation to seek redress from the collective rather than the individual often makes strategic sense because institutions tend to hold greater resources than individuals. Indeed, this practical matter tends to influence the metaphysics of collective responsibility: we often act as if collectives bare moral responsibility because we know this belief affords the best chance of compensation. Victims should keep in mind, however, that such “deeper pockets” arguments may leave them taking from the innocent. While the architects of the 2008 financial crisis enjoy new corporate, academic, and governmental leadership positions, the taxpayers feel the pain of “austerity” and “sequestration” cuts designed in part to clean the mess created by bank executives.

What might Turing and other victims deserve as redress? I doubt we will find an exact equivalent in money or anything else, but efforts could be made. We can only imagine the wealth a tech-god like Turing might have amassed had he lived through the 1980s. And again he is only one of the victims deserving some sort of redress. Might Turing deserve a national holiday that stands for the rights of all of these victims and occasions reflection on these dark corners of history, similar to Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States? There are many, many options that would convey more value than simply declaring Turing “unguilty.”


10) What intentions motivate the apology?

The categorically apologetic offender undertakes the work of apologizing for the sake of the offender, the community, and in recognition of the breached value. We can distinguish this from an apology provided primarily if not exclusively for self-serving objectives. Even if all of the other aspects of the apology remain the same, intentions matter.

Political apologies suffer from a crisis of credibility as candidates and parties consult focus groups and pollsters to decide the extent to which various kinds of apologies confer strategic advantages. Why apologize and pardon now? How much of this has to do with the Imitation Game and its predecessor documentary Codebreaker? Why did it take so long? Did the Crown lack the courage to pardon Turing until gay rights was a safer issue politically—that would seem particularly cowardly given that royalty generally transcends electoral politics.


11) Does the political apology demonstrate appropriate emotions?

The offender should experience an appropriate degree of the appropriate kinds of emotions, typically including sorrow, guilty, empathy, and sympathy. An offender who fails to experience the proper apologetic emotions does not provide certain important kinds of meaning, including demonstrating an understanding of and disgust with the pain she has cause. Negative emotions can also indicate deserved suffering. Beyond this baseline recognition that emotions play essential roles in apologetic meaning, questions abound. Which emotions, in what quantity, and for how long should the offender experience them? How should the emotions evolve over time as the offender better understand the extent of the harm she caused? How do cultural differences regarding emotional expression nuance any answers we provide?

State agents may feel grief, regret, remorse, or shame, and in the aggregate all of the emotions may add up to meaningful expressions. But the notion that the state experiences negative emotions in some sense irreducible to the mental states of its members humanizes organizational structures too much.

Even if the Queen or Prime Minister do not deserve blame or feel guilt, they can certainly sympathize with plaintiffs. But problems of standing arise: should they be experiencing the negative emotions on account of their blameworthiness? If we expect the political offenders to suffer retributive punishment via experiencing negative emotions, surely expressions of shame from their successors causes pain to the wrong people. Acting as if we can emotionally punish a collective allows individual offenders to deposit their moral debts to soulless institutions from which we will never collect. Likewise, if the spokesperson can absorb the organization’s shame or humiliation this would seem to significantly diminish whatever deterrent threat or rehabilitative impact such negative emotions may produce.

When a leader expresses the requisite emotions, does she speak for her own emotions or for the group’s? Do all of the other blameworthy individuals also experience these emotions? What if only a few members of the group really feel bad, some felt bad for a while but now experience occasional sadness for the victims, some give it no thought, and others think the victims deserve to suffer? Issues of consensus complicate matters, especially in apologies from the state when so many issues divide across party lines. Deciphering the mental states of individuals via outward appearance is an inexact science; reading the face and emotions of a spokesperson to determine the feelings of an institution approaches folly.

Finally, the Queen is “graciously pleased” to extend the pardon. The Prime Minister is “pleased to have this chance” and “proud to say” the apology. Such self-congratulating emotions cut both ways: on the one hand we can appreciate that they should feel some sense of accomplishment that, finally, we are making some progress. On the other hand, the positive emotions undercut the negative emotions that we would expect from those who feel bad for their role in victimization. Too much pride here flirts with moral grandstanding.



 The above discussion hopefully sheds some light on recent efforts to make amends with Alan Turing’s legacy. Those attempts remain far from perfect, but we should not dismiss them as meaningless.

Nick Smith
Nick Smith
Dr. Nick Smith is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. His areas of scholarly interests are apologies and forgiveness; philosophy of law, politics, and society, particularly as considered through contemporary continental philosophy; as well as aesthetics. He has published two books: “I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies” (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and “Justice through Apologies: Remorse, Reform, and Punishment” (Cambridge University Press, 2014). You can learn more about Nick Smith’s work here:
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