Nearly all of us have death-inspired FOMO—we fear death because we have a Fear Of Missing Out on all the good times that dead people can’t partake in. But, if FOMO is a reason to fear death, then why isn’t it also a reason to fear all of the good times we missed out on from not being born yet? If we die today, instead of 20 years in the future, then we miss out on 20 years of good times. Similarly, assuming that we die today, if we had been born 20 years earlier, then we would have enjoyed 20 more years of good times. Late birth and early death are the same; they both make us miss out on 20 years of good times. So, why don’t we fear missing out on the good times we could have had before we were born? Why isn’t pre-natal FOMO a thing?
First of all, it doesn’t really make sense to fear the past, let alone an alternate past. We don’t fear the Holocaust, or a Holocaust that started 20 years earlier than the real one actually did. Missed opportunities are in the past, so we don’t fear them. But we do lament them. Some of you will still be regretting your decision to stay in your Y2K bunker instead of joining a new millennium’s eve party. So, the question is better posed as: Why do we not Lament Our Missing Out on all of the good times that we could have had if we lived longer by being born earlier? Why isn’t pre-natal LOMO a thing?
Thinking about some scenarios might help here.
Consider hearing two rumours about a long-lost friend that is so long-lost that you know you will never be in contact with them. According to rumour A, your long-lost friend has lived for 74 happy years and will live for 1 more happy year before dying from a painless illness. According to rumour B, your long-lost friend has lived for 40 happy years and will live for 15 more happy years before dying from a painless illness. Thinking only about what is best for your long-lost friend, and recalling that you will never be in contact with them, which rumour would you prefer to be true?
Rumour A: Your long-lost friend has 1 more happy year to go, making a total of 75 happy years. Or,
Rumour B: Your long-lost friend has 15 more happy years to go, making a total of 55 happy years.
Of course, you would prefer rumour A to be true because it means that your long-lost friend gets 20 more years of good times. Or, put another way, the truth of rumour B would cause you to lament your long-lost friend’s missing out on the 20 years of good times that would have resulted from him or her being born earlier. So, pre-natal LOMO is a thing in regards to our judgments about the lives of others. We just needed an unusual example to bring it out. Can we bring out pre-natal LOMO about our own prenatal nonexistence with another unusual example?
Imagine that you awake in a hospital after a minor surgery. The surgery was a complete success. You are now in excellent health, but you still feel groggy and confused. A side-effect of the anesthetic has caused you to temporarily forget the details of your life. Noticing your confusion, the nurse is going to check his paperwork so he can remind you about the details of your life. You are one of two patients on the ward in this situation. Patient 1 has lived for 74 happy years and will live for 1 more happy year before dying from a painless illness. Patient 2 has lived for 40 happy years and will live for 15 more happy years before dying from a painless illness. Thinking only about what is good for you, what would you prefer to hear from the nurse about which patient you are?
You are Patient 1: You have 1 more happy year to go, making a total of 75 happy years.
You are Patient 2: You have 15 more happy years to go, making a total of 55 happy years.
Nearly all of you would prefer to hear that you are Patient 2; you’d rather have your happy years ahead of you than behind, even if that means getting considerably less happy years in total. This preference implies a lack of lamentation about not being born earlier. If missing out on 20 happy years by being born later is lamentable, then it seems that someone forgot to send you the memo about how terrible it is to have missed out on past happy years. Clearly, LOMO about our own pre-natal nonexistence is not a thing.
But, it should be!
Missing out on the good times that a longer life can provide is a bad thing. We are right to fear missing out through “early” death. And, we should be equally upset about missing out through “late” birth. We can see this clearly when we consider the lives of others, but we miss it totally when considering our own lives. We would prefer to hear rumour A because it means that, through being born earlier, our long-lost friend doesn’t miss out on 20 years of good times. But, we’d prefer to be Patient 2, foregoing 20 extra years of good times just because it’s in the past. It’s like we think of our own past as dead to us, but other people’s pasts are very much alive for them. This inconsistency begs for an explanation.
Aren’t more good times better than less? Why do we neglect our own past so? Perhaps we have evolved to focus solely on the future because more surviving and reproducing is better for our genes regardless of how much surviving and reproducing we have already done. Notice that our genes aren’t interested in the fate of our long-lost friend, so we might be left with just our rational faculties when we evaluate whether their late birth should be lamented. Free of the influence of our genetic overlords, we seem to understand the value of earlier birth and Lament Our Missing Out on the good times that an earlier birth would have enabled.
So, next time you are overwhelmed by FOMO-inspired fear of your possibly early death, don’t forget to spare some energy for LOMO-inspired lamentation of your late birth as well.
This was inspired by the writings of Lucretius, Derek Parfit, and Jeff McMahan, and many conversations with Peter Unger.