CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician and also a genuine war hero, not because he fought in combat, but because he did crucial work for the British government during World War II. Turing broke a number of German codes, including communications that had been scrambled by the Enigma machines. In 1945, King George VI awarded Turing the Order of the British Empire.
In the following years, Turing made numerous contributions to knowledge, including the domain of pattern recognition. Many people consider him the father of computer science. Since 1966, the Association of Computing Machinery has awarded the Turing Award, perhaps the highest distinction in all of computer science, for contributions “of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field.”
Turing was gay, and in 1952, he was convicted of the criminal offense of “gross indecency” for a sexual act with a man. Upon conviction, he was asked to choose between imprisonment or probation, with the latter conditioned on acceptance of hormonal treatment, which would reduce his sex drive. He chose the latter. He lost his security clearance and his consulting position with the U.K. government. In 1954, he died, almost certainly of suicide.
Last week, Queen Elizabeth II pardoned Turing. Justice Minister Chris Grayling, who requested the pardon, said, “Turing deserves to be remembered and recognized 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.”
In every decade, it is tempting to look back on previous practices and to wonder how good people could have acquiesced in, or even approved of, a wide range of cruelties and injustices. We tend to marvel at how far we have come. As 2014 begins, and Turing finally stands pardoned, it isn’t so easy to resist that temptation.
But here is an irony and a warning: There is no question that in 1952, many good people acquiesced in or supported Turing’s conviction while also marveling about how far they had come — how the obvious cruelties and injustices of previous ages had been eradicated, and how many of their contemporary questions were difficult ones, without clear answers.
In much of the world, same-sex relations remain a criminal offense. Just last month, the Ugandan legislature passed a law that would impose life imprisonment for homosexual activities. It wasn’t until 2003 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex acts couldn’t be criminalized. Most states continue to forbid same-sex marriages. In other domains, even democratic nations authorize practices that will be seen a few decades from now as cruel and unjust, prompting future generations to ask: How could they have done that?
Last week’s long-overdue pardon was a good way to pay tribute to Alan Turing. An even better way would be to scrutinize our own practices with that question in mind.
Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University professor at Harvard Law School, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of “Nudge” and author of “Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas,” forthcoming in March 2014.