Pardon for Turing does not compute? | Institute of Continuing Education skip to content

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One focus within the philosophy of language is the study of speech acts. These are things someone does by uttering certain words in a certain context – apologising, forgiving, asking, telling, warning, promising, blaming, awarding, asserting, permitting, sentencing, and so on.

Understanding speech acts is part of understanding the richness of language. It is also part of understanding how to make social, legal and political progress. Speech acts are central to this aspect of public life, as William Jones’ recent petition for Alan Turing to be posthumously pardoned for a 1952 conviction reminded me.

Turing’s sexual relationship with a man meant he was found guilty of ‘gross indecency’. He lost certain rights and he was given hormone treatment. Clearly, the old criminalisation of sexual acts between men is ghastly. But is a pardon the right speech act with which to address the situation?

This question turns out to be complex, not least because there are various potential analyses of what kind of speech act a pardon is; of what it brings about and what it relies on. As a first stab, we might treat pardoning as a species of forgiveness. But then we have a problem: a pardon seemingly presumes that Turing did something wrong, which misses the point. The legislation was bad because it legislated against something which was not wrong.

Perhaps, instead, to pardon is to overlook or disregard the act – as if Turing had not broken the law after all. But what does this mean? Are we to treat the world as if Turing had not had a homosexual relationship? That isn’t the appropriate response. So are we just to disregard the fact that it was illegal? Then the challenge is to square this with the fact that there was a law against sexual acts between men, a law which others are still regarded as having broken.

Then maybe to pardon is to correct an error in the application of a law. For example, perhaps there is some information which changes the nature of the case and was originally overlooked. But then a pardon is not the right thing for Turing – his act was within the remit of gross indecency legislation. In fact, asking for a pardon would put us in danger of obscuring what the law was aimed against. And that wouldn’t do. We recognise that the legislation is repugnant precisely because we realise what it was aimed against.

I think the Turing petition gives us a fascinating and delicate real-life case study for understanding what speech acts to perform when and why. Moral and social progress can be substantially furthered by the speech acts we perform, just as it can be thwarted by them. It’s so important to be able to ask for and deliver the right ones. So we should be paying attention to the philosophical issues which lie behind them.

You can find out more information about the Philosophy courses we offer here at ICE on our website.

Dr Emily Caddick Bourne, ICE Academic Director for Philosophy

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