The theme of responsibility is so dominant within existentialism that Solomon (2000) has termed it the philosophy of no excuses. If we are all responsible for what we have control over, and we always have choices – which go on to make ourselves and the world – then, as Solomon explains, “we are all responsible for what we do, what we are, and the way the world is” (Solomon, 2000: 16). This kind of freedom in a world of uncertainty causes anguish, as it becomes clear that “nothing stands between us and our own willful self-destruction” (Solomon, 2000: 21). One has the ability to transcend one’s facticity by making choices in reaction to the current global crisis, and despite not knowing the full extent of how these choices will contribute to or prevent self-destruction, one is still responsible.
The nature of this situation naturally leads to what Sartre calls “bad faith,” a way of avoiding individual responsibility by denying the true extent of one’s freedom (Solomon, 2008: 11). This occurs when the line between facticity and transcendence is confused (Solomon, 2008: 13). A common example is denying one’s freedom by appealing to be a “victim of circumstance,‟ an appeal that is familiar to the corporate world in relation to organizational duties and market forces (Solomon, 2008; Friedman, 1970). This form of bad faith is a particularly potent characteristic of modern bureaucratic society (Bauman, 1991). In reacting to climate change and the need for carbon reductions, one might be in bad faith by making excuses like, “everybody else is polluting, why should I do any different?” or “I need to look out for myself, just like everyone else!” (Solomon, 2000: 16). Yet, according to Sartre, one is still responsible because one always has a choice. This same form of bad faith also applies to relinquishing one’s freedom and responsibility by appealing to an external ethic or moral system. This would include turning sustainable development itself into an ethical movement, akin to a moral system in which all one must do to make the world a better place.
Alternatively, the other form of bad faith is a denial of one’s facticity with overly ambitious assumptions that deny the reality of one’s situation. An example of this could be “greening‟ initiatives, which try to “maximise economic wealth, while ensuring that exploitation of environmental resources does not translate into a lower overall standard of living” (Palmer et al. 1997: 88). The common assumption here is that one should be able to do well by doing good (Thaler, 2012). While sometimes this is the case, it isn’t always. This is related to the assumption that the current crisis can be adequately addressed within traditional development paradigms. Reliance on more growth, but with greener technology, or substituting diminishing natural capital with human-made capital can be linked to bad faith if faith in these measures ignores the constraints of what is factual about the earth systems and the ability of humans to manage themselves and these systems (Gladwin et al, 1995: 884; Dresner, 2002: 82). Also, treating sustainability as the “art of longevity,” in which it is a fight against the temporality of natural or human-made systems could be in bad faith because of the temptation to deny the facticity of limited longevity in favor of seeking a form of un-ending maintenance (Orr, 2000; Costanza et al, 1995: 196).
Despite all of this, the line between facticity and transcendence is fuzzy, which even Sartre agrees makes bad faith inevitable (Solomon, 2000: 23). This is why it is essential for the individual, seeking authenticity, to continually reflect on the extent of his or her own freedom and the responsibilities that accompany one’s choices. Emphasis on avoiding bad faith to achieve authenticity seems to indicate the existence of an existential ethic, despite the existentialist insistence against relinquishing one’s freedom by relying on ethical doctrines. So is there an ethic? Is it possible to say one “should” do something? Can existentialism help the individual know what to do when facing the uncertainty of sustainable development?