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File:Theodoor Galle - Opportunity Seized, Opportunity Missed - WGA08445.jpg
Opportunity Seized, Opportunity Missed, engraving by Theodoor Galle, 1605

Opportunism is the conscious policy and practice of taking advantage of circumstances – with little regard for principles, or with what the consequences are for others. Opportunist actions are expedient actions guided primarily by self-interested motives. The term can be applied to individual humans and living organisms, groups, organizations, styles, behaviours, and trends.

Opportunism or "opportunistic behavior" is an important concept in such fields of study as biology, transaction cost economics, game theory, ethics, psychology, sociology and politics.


Opportunism is the conscious policy and practice of taking selfish advantage of circumstances.[1] Although human opportunism often has a strong negative (pejorative) moral connotation (in contrast to e.g. biological opportunism, used as a neutral scientific description), it may also be defined more neutrally as putting self-interest before other interests when there is an opportunity to do so, or flexibly adapting to changing circumstances to maximize self-interest (though usually in a way that negates some principle previously followed). Opportunism is sometimes also defined as the ability to capitalize on the mistakes of others: to utilize opportunities created by the errors, weaknesses or distractions of opponents to one's own advantage.[2]

Somewhat confusingly, opportunism is sometimes also redefined by businessmen simply as the theory of discovering and pursuing opportunities.[3] These businessmen are motivated by their dislike for the idea that there could ever be anything wrong with capitalizing on opportunities. According to this redefinition, "opportunism" is a euphemism for "entrepreneurship".

Taking a realistic or practical approach to a problem can involve "weak" forms of opportunism. For the sake of doing something that will work, or that successfully solves the problem, a previously agreed principle is knowingly compromised or disregarded - with the justification that alternative actions would, overall, have a worse effect.

In choosing or seizing opportunities, human opportunism is most likely to occur where:

  • People can make the most gains for themselves at the least cost to themselves.
  • Relevant internal or external controls on their behaviour are absent.
  • People are pressured to choose and act.

Criticism of opportunism usually refers to a situation where beliefs and principles are tested or challenged.

Human opportunism should not be confused with "seeking opportunities" as such, or "making use of opportunities when they arise". Opportunism refers rather to a specific way of responding to opportunities, which involves the element of self-interestedness plus disregard for relevant (ethical) principles, or for intended or previously agreed goals, or for the shared concerns of a group.[4]


In the early 19th century, the term "opportunist" as noun or adjective was already known and used in several European languages, but initially it rarely referred to political processes or to a political tendency. The English term "opportunism" is possibly borrowed originally from the Italian expression opportunismo. In 19th-century Italian politics, it meant "exploiting the prevailing circumstances or opportunities to gain immediate advantage for oneself or one's own group". However, it is more likely that the English expression was directly borrowed from the French term, when it began to refer specifically to the opportunist Republicans, since the term first entered the English language in the early 1870s.[5]

In Latin, opportunus means opportune or favourable (opportunitas = opportunity); the word itself is a contraction of ob portus ("toward the harbour/entrance") or oppositum portus ("facing the harbour/entrance").

Moral connotations

As a style of human behaviour, opportunism has the connotation of a lack of integrity, or doing something that is out of character (inconsistent). The underlying thought is that the price of the unrestrained pursuit of selfishness is behavioural inconsistency. Thus, opportunism involves compromising some or other principle normally upheld. However, the boundary between "legitimate self-interest" and "undesirable (or anti-social) selfishness" can be difficult to define; the definition may depend on one's point of view, or position in life.[6]

Some people regard an opportunist stance positively as a legitimate choice, which can be the lesser evil. Thus, the British Conservative statesman Stanley Baldwin is supposed to have quipped:[7]

"I would rather be an opportunist and float than go to the bottom with my principles around my neck" – Stanley Baldwin[8]

Life can be viewed as presenting "an endless series of opportunities", where the pattern of one's responses defines who or what one is (individual identity). It can also be viewed as a striving to realize or express certain principles. However, the moral dilemma implied by opportunism concerns the conflict of self-interest with the interests of others, or with following a principle: either to do what one wants, or to do "what is the right thing to do". Thus, substantively, opportunism refers to someone who acts on opportunities in a self-interested, biased or one-sided manner that conflicts or contrasts in some way with a (more general) rule, law, norm, or principle.

The fact that the self-interested action evokes this conflict, often implies that the tendency to use opportunities to advantage is excessive or improper, the corollary being a deficiency of character or at least a lack of propriety. Hence the term opportunism often has the pejorative connotation of morally unsound behaviour, or behaviour that sacrifices a greater good for the sake of gaining an advantage for oneself or one's own group. Moralists may have a distaste for opportunism, insofar as opportunism implies the violation of a moral principle.

It is often difficult for an outsider to understand why an action or an idea is (or is not) "opportunist", because the outsider does not know the whole story, or the whole context, or the true intention behind it. The way things appear can give an impression which is quite different from the real motivation that is behind it.

Human behaviour

In human behaviour generally, opportunism concerns the relationship between what people do, and their basic principles when faced with opportunities and challenges. The opportunist seeks to gain personal advantage when an opportunity presents itself, putting self-interest ahead of some other interest, in a way contrary either to a previously established principle or another principle that ought to have higher priority. Hence opportunist behaviour is usually regarded at least as questionable or dubious, and at most as unjustifiable or completely illegitimate. Opportunism is regarded as unhealthy, as a disorder or as a character deficiency, if selfishly pursuing an opportunity is blatantly anti-social (involves disregard for the needs, wishes and interests of others). However, behaviour can also be regarded as "opportunist" by scholars without any particular moral evaluation being made or implied (simply as a type of self-interested behaviour).

The sociology and psychology of human opportunism is somewhat related to the study of gambling behaviour, and centres on the way people respond to risk and opportunity, and what kind of motivation and organizational culture is involved. Both the element of risk and opportunity play a role. To be opportunist in behaviour, a person or group must:

  • refuse to take a risk, if doing so would reduce influence, support, wealth or popularity, even although taking the risk is consistent with the principles the person or group uphold.
  • take a risk for the purpose of gaining/maintaining influence, support, wealth or popularity, although taking this risk is inconsistent with the principles being espoused.
  • take advantage of an opportunity to increase influence, support, wealth or popularity, although it is not consistent with the principles being upheld.
  • refuse to respond to an opportunity, only because responding to it might forfeit influence, support, wealth or popularity, even although taking the opportunity would in truth be consistent with the principles being subscribed to.

Thus, the opportunity exploited for selfish ends can itself exist either because an action is taken, or because of deliberate inaction (when action should really have been taken). The propensity to engage in such kinds of behaviours depends a great deal on the presence of absence of personal characteristics such as integrity, moral character, personal insight or self-awareness, personal flexibility and balance. It also depends on the ability to judge the consequences of different courses of action correctly. Strong emotions and desires may also play a role, and much may depend on how permissive a person, group or organization is (see permissive society). These factors influence the capacity to know "where to draw the line" appropriately, and regulate one's own behaviour so that it remains consistent. Much also depends on the beliefs people happen to have about themselves and the world they live in, and on the morale of an organization.

Whatever the opportunist's exact motive, it always involves the element of selfishness. Psychologically, it follows that opportunism always assumes a basic ability to make one's own choices, and decide to act in a way that serves one's own interest. In turn, that presupposes at least some basic self-motivation, inner direction, inventiveness and behavioural freedom; subjectively, an opportunist must at least be able to recognize and respond to opportunities when they are there.

Eight main contexts

Personalities and beliefs are shaped by the specific environment where they form. It is likely that the possibilities for opportunist behaviour are promoted in contexts where there is not only an incentive to engage in them, but also where it is also extremely difficult for some reason to remain behaviourally consistent, or where ordinary constraints on behaviour are lacking. In that case, opportunist behaviour does not seem to have much adverse effect or consequence, at least in the short term, compared to the much greater benefits of engaging in it. Eight main contexts are referred to in the literature:

  • Power: according to Lord Acton's famous dictum, "all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". If a person or group has great power in some context, it is more likely that they can engage in opportunist behaviour without this being challenged, criticized or checked. In other words, the absence of relevant controls on behaviour is likely to facilitate opportunism.[9] If there are only weak sanctions against unprincipled behaviour, this creates a setting where opportunist behaviour can flourish, and if the positions of people are very unequal (in terms of power, wealth, status, knowledge or strength) the possibility exists that some will take advantage of the disadvantage of others.
  • Advantages: the prevalence of opportunist behaviour is likely to be influenced by the perception that the pay-off or advantage of engaging in it, outweighs possible disadvantages or penalties. Opportunism is facilitated if the situation permits an actor to appropriate the gains or advantages to be had from an activity to themselves, while shifting the costs, blame and disadvantages to others. This may be regarded as unfair competition.
  • Predicaments:The propensity of opportunist behaviour is influenced by the general life-situations that people find themselves in. If one's own position is strong and secure, it may be much easier to be an opportunist – because if it would result in losses and failures, those losses and failures can be easily sustained given the resources available. Conversely, a person's existence may be so precarious, that he has "nothing to lose" by seizing any opportunity available to benefit himself. Opportunist behaviour can be self-reinforcing: if there is a lot of opportunism, then not to be opportunist oneself would mean that competitors take advantage of that, and therefore people can be forced into an opportunist role as a defensive strategy.
  • Resources: if a new bonanza (an abundantly available resource, or market) is discovered, accessible or opened up, people may try to "grab what they can" without regard to the consequences for others, perhaps with the thought that if they do not avail themselves of this opportunity, others will (and that if others do, it disadvantages them). Examples might be a gold rush and the tragedy of the commons. In this case, opportunist behaviour may be facilitated, especially if precise rules for how a resource should be distributed are lacking, or if it is unclear who really owns it, or if proper use cannot be enforced.[10]
  • Information: opportunism is facilitated in the absence of relevant information, knowledge or awareness about the interests and values involved in a situation or activity, making it difficult to identify and judge all the consequences in pursuing an opportunity. This could be due to deliberate disinformation. Self-interest may be followed because it is unclear or undecided what other interests are at stake, or because a shared morality is lacking. If the situation is one where shared rules are lacking, where it is quite uncertain what the relevant rule to apply is, or where everything is very uncertain or chaotic, plenty of scope exists for opportunist behaviour.[11]
  • Competition: in a situation of intense conflict, competition or war,[12] it may be that people will do anything to survive, win, retain support, or defend themselves, never mind the principles, ideals or beliefs they had. Ordinary laws and "rules of the game" break down, creating new opportunities for those positioned to take advantage of them.
  • Awareness: if people are for some or other reason deceiving themselves about the real consequences of their actions, they are more likely to initiate or condone opportunist behaviour; if they were more aware, that wouldn't happen to the same extent. Opportunism is facilitated if for any reason there is a low level of awareness that it is happening. Perceptions of the strengths and vulnerabilities of others and oneself may play an important role.
  • Success: opportunism often involves the presence of a very strong desire to be popular, to exercise influence or to succeed in making gains. That motivation can promote the urge to win something "by any means necessary", even if it means to "cut corners" and do things not consistent with relevant principles. If people are for some reason motivated "to do anything at all to achieve success", they are more likely to engage in opportunist behaviour for that very reason.

Five main organizational influences

Opportunist behaviour is also strongly influenced by the organizational context in which it occurs.

  • Controls: some organizations may have a code of behaviour or set of rules that makes opportunist behaviour difficult, because organizational policy sets clear and immediate penalties for such behaviour. Other organizations may be so loosely structured and so lacking in controls and sanctions regulating behaviour, that opportunism becomes almost unavoidable.
  • Rationale: much depends on whether the organization really has a principled basis for its activities to start out with (a clearly defined, agreed understanding about the relationship between goals and the means to achieve them). Lacking such a principled foundation, the organization may find itself constantly trying to compensate for both opportunist errors and factional errors.
  • Norms and values: behaviour that some organizations regard as "opportunist" may be perfectly acceptable in others, or tolerated as normal. Sometimes expectations of behaviour are made explicit by the organization with the aid of formal rules communicated to members. Sometimes they are only implicit and informal - possibly because formal rules are not easy to formulate, or to enforce, or because it is assumed that members understand and share relevant norms and values.
  • Size: in general, the larger an organization is in terms of members, the more scope its members have to engage in opportunist behaviour, since the larger it is, the less individual members are practically able to check or control the behaviour of many other members, and the more possibility there is that groups of members will develop self-serving interests that deviate from the stated goals of the organization.[13]
  • Purpose: the scope for opportunism depends very much on the nature and goals of the organization itself, and on the strength and integrity of its leadership. If for example the organization sets itself the task to exploit risks and opportunities to advantage, then no matter what its size is, it tends to facilitate opportunist behaviour. If, on the other hand, the aim of the organization is to carefully conserve a state of affairs or belief system, this is much less likely to attract opportunists.

Use of the term in specific areas

Professional opportunism

In professional ethics, the concept of opportunism plays a role in defining criteria for professional integrity.[14] In providing a service, a professional may have personal discretion (choice or leeway) about how to provide the service. Professionals may, to a great extent, make their own judgements, interpretations, and decisions about the exact approach to take—without an explicit rule that they must perform in a specific way. Such a situation can be exploited with opportunist motives that are contrary to the stated ethics of a profession. Consequently, it becomes necessary—for the sake of preserving professional integrity—to explicate "guiding norms" that define the boundaries of acceptable practice, or to divide up roles in such a way that different people in an organization can effectively check and control what their colleagues actually do ("to keep them honest").

Intellectual opportunism

The term intellectual opportunism—the pursuit of intellectual opportunities with a selfish, ulterior motive not consistent with relevant principles—refers to certain self-serving tendencies of the human intellect, often involving professional producers and disseminators of ideas, who work with idea-formation all the time. The phenomenon of intellectual opportunism is frequently associated by its critics with careerism. When human knowledge becomes a tradeable good in a market of ideas, all sorts of opportunities arise for huckstering, swindling, haggling and hustling with information in ways which are regarded as unprincipled, dubious or involve deceit of some sort.

The intellectual opportunist adapts his intellectual concerns, pursuits and utterances to "fit with the trend/fashion" or "fit the situation" or "with what sells" – with the (ulterior) motive of gaining personal popularity/support, protecting intellectual coherence, obtaining personal credit, acquiring privilege or status, persuading others, ingratiating himself, taking advantage or making money. Normally this assumes some degree of intellectual flexibility, agility or persuasiveness.

Sexual opportunism

Main article: Sexual opportunism

Sexual opportunism is the selfish pursuit of sexual opportunities for their own sake when they arise, often with the negative moral connotation that in some way it "takes advantage" of others, or "makes use" of, or "exploits", other persons for sexual purposes. Sexual opportunism is sometimes also defined as the use of sexual favours for selfish purposes quite unrelated to the sexual activity, in which case taking a sexual opportunity is merely the means to achieve a quite different purpose, for example to advance one's career or obtain status or money.[15] This may be accepted or tolerated, or it may be criticized because the concerns of others are not adequately taken into consideration (or because it is contrary to authentic sexual love).

To the extent that the feelings, wishes, intentions, purposes, interests or norms of others are not adequately considered in the pursuit of sexual gratification, it then conflicts with some or other principle for appropriate behaviour, and it may involve deceit or dishonesty (for example, the deliberate exploitation of sexual innocence). In that case, the sexual opportunist is considered to lack sexual and/or personal integrity. In a clinical or scientific sense, sexual opportunism is often straightforwardly described as observable sexual promiscuity or the observable propensity to engage in casual sex, whatever the motive.

Evolutionary opportunism

In the theory of evolution, "evolutionary opportunism" refers to a specific pattern of development in the history of a species. The behaviour, culture or body part of a species that long ago evolved to serve a particular purpose or function may subsequently lend itself to a very different positive purpose or function that helps the species to survive.[16] Thus, in a new stage of evolution, a long-existing behaviour, culture, or physical characteristic can respond to a wholly new opportunity and acquire a new role. It turns out to have new advantages or potential benefits the species previously never used—and, therefore, the species retains an adaptation even if the original purpose it served is long gone.

Biological opportunism

In biology, an opportunist organism is generally defined as a species that can live and thrive in variable environmental conditions, and sustain itself from a number of different food sources, or can rapidly take advantage of favorable conditions when they arise, because the species is behaviorally sufficiently flexible. Such species can for example postpone reproduction, or stay dormant, until conditions make growth and reproduction possible. In the biological disciplines, opportunistic behavior is studied in fields such as evolutionary biology, ecology, epidemiology, and etiology, where moral or judgmental overtones do not apply (see also opportunistic pathogens, opportunistic predation, phoresis, and parasitism).

In microbiology, opportunism refers to the ability of a normally non-pathogenic microorganism to act as a pathogen in certain circumstances. Opportunist micro-organisms (such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa) are ones that, when they invade the host organism, can cause infection in the host organism, but cause real disease only if the natural defenses, resistance or immune system of the host organism are lowered (see opportunistic infection). In macrobiology, opportunist behaviour by an organism generally means that it is able to seize and use diverse opportunities in its environment to survive and grow. If one single opportunity or need occurs, the organism can "improvise" a response to it with whatever resources it has available, even if what it can do is not the best possible strategy.

Some animals also show this behavior for group-foraging. In other words, they try to optimize the feeding intake of their colony. The Australian stingless bee Tetragonula carbonaria, for instance, has several workers search for an area full of rich resources, and will then recruit heavily in this area until the resources are depleted."[17]

Political opportunism

Main article: Political opportunism

The term "opportunism" is often used in politics and political science, and by activists campaigning for a cause. The political philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli as described in The Prince is often regarded as a classic manual of opportunist scheming. Political opportunism is interpreted in different ways, but usually refers to one or more of the following:

  • a political style of aiming to increase one's political influence at almost any price, or a political style that involves seizing every and any opportunity to extend political influence, whenever such opportunities arise.
  • the practice of abandoning or compromising in reality some important political principles that were previously held, in the process of trying to increase one's political power and influence.
  • a trend of thought, or a political tendency, seeking to make political capital out of situations with the main aim being that of gaining more influence, prestige or support, instead of truly winning people over to a principled position or improving their political understanding.

Typically, opportunist political behavior is criticized for being short-sighted or narrow-minded.[18] Most politicians are "opportunists" to some extent at least (they aim to utilize political opportunities creatively to their advantage, and have to try new initiatives), but the controversies surrounding the concept concern the exact relationship between "seizing a political opportunity" and the political principles being espoused. The term "political opportunism" is often used in a pejorative sense, mainly because it connotes the abandonment of principles or compromising political goals.[19] Political integrity typically demands an appropriate combination of principled positions and political flexibility that produces a morally consistent behavior in specific circumstances. There are four main sources of political opportunism: suivisme (a specific political methodology that is applied to maintain or increase political influence), populism, risk management, and "means become ends".

Economic opportunism

Main article: Economic opportunism

There exists no agreed general, scientific definition or theory of economic opportunism; the literature usually considers only specific cases and contexts. Market trade supplies no universal morality of its own, except the law of contract and basic practical requirements to settle transactions, while at the same time legal rules, however precise in their formulation, cannot control every detail of transactions and the interpretation (or implications) thereof. Since economic opportunism must be assessed against some relevant norm or principle, controversy about what that norm or principle should be, makes a general definition difficult.[20]

Market trade is compatible with a great variety of moral norms, religions and political systems, and indeed supporters of the free market claim that this is exactly its advantage: people can choose their own values, buying and selling as they wish within a basic legal framework accepted by all.[21] People would not normally trade, if they did not expect to gain something by it; the fact that they do trade normally presupposes at least a respect for the basic rights of the party being traded with. Nevertheless, the gains or benefits of trading activity (and indeed the losses), although entirely legal, might be distributed very unequally or in ways not anticipated by previous understandings, and thus accusations of "economic opportunism" can arise nevertheless in many different settings.[22] If this is the case, relevant trading obligations (or civil obligations) are usually considered as not being (fully) met or honored, in the pursuit of economic self-interest. Greed is frequently mentioned as a primary motive for economic opportunism.[23]

Glenn R. Parker[24] claims that the five most discussed examples of economic opportunism are:

  • adverse selection
  • moral hazard
  • last-period exploitation, when it is known that competitors or stakeholders are not able to respond to a suitably timed selfish action.
  • reneging (in contracts), where a contractual agreement, promise, intention or understanding of a deal is not fully honoured by a party to the contract, for selfish motives, because it is possible "to get away with it" and/or because there is an incentive to do so.[25]
  • shirking, involving some kind of negligence, or failure to acquit oneself of a duty (or a responsibility) previous agreed or implied (see also efficiency wages).

In transaction cost economics, opportunism means self-interest seeking with guile, involving some kind of deliberate deceit and the absence of moral restraint. It could involve deliberately withholding or distorting important business information, shirking (doing less work than agreed), or failing to fulfill formal or informal promises and obligations. It occurs in trading activities especially where rules and sanctions are lacking, and where the opportunist actor has great power to influence an outcome by the attitude he assumes in practice. However, others[26] argue that this reflects a narrow view of economic opportunism, because there are many more ways that economic actors can take selfish advantage of other economic actors, even if they do not violate the law.[27]

Game theory

In game theory, opportunism concerns the contradictory relationships between altruistic and self-interested behaviour, where the different kinds of common and sectional interests existing in a situation are used mainly to make gains for oneself. If some actors in a game are placed at a disadvantage in some way, for any reason, it becomes an opportunity for other actors to capitalize on that fact, by using the disadvantage of others to improve their own position – under conditions where actors both compete and cooperate in different areas. Two classic cases discussed in game theory where opportunism is often involved are the free rider problem and the prisoner's dilemma.[28] In this game-theoretical sense, Paul Seabright defines opportunism as "the behaviour of those who seek to benefit from the efforts of others without contributing anything themselves."[29] Game theory can, for example, model the effects of information asymmetry, where people have unequal access to relevant information, so that those who "do know" can take advantage of those who "don't know".

From a game-theoretical perspective, opportunism is objectively a "problem", if the pursuit of self-interest – in conflict with other interests at stake – has an undesirable or unwanted result for some actors or most of them. However, in principle examples could also be constructed where opportunist behaviour unintentionally serves other, broader interests (such as when, in their rush to take selfish advantage of a situation, the opportunist actors create more opportunities for other actors at the same time – the "bandwaggon" or "food chain" effect; see also Pareto optimality). In game theory, therefore, opportunism is not defined as being intrinsically and necessarily always a good thing or a bad thing; it could be either. Usually though, it is assumed, that the game theorist is able to "stand outside" the different interests being studied, to view the situation objectively – in a detached, uninvolved, impartial and unbiased way.

Kenneth Arrow explains that markets require trust to operate effectively, but that trust may not be spontaneously generated by market activity:

"In a rational type of analysis it will be said that it is profitable to be trustworthy. So I will be trustworthy because it is profitable to me. But you can't very easily establish trust on a basis like that. If your basis is rational decision and your underlying motive is self-interest, then you can betray your trust at any point when it is profitable and in your interest to do so. Therefore other people can't trust you. For there to be trust, there has to be a social structure which is based on motives different from immediate opportunism."[30]

Social opportunism

Social opportunism refers to the use of opportunities for social contact only for selfish purposes or motives. Because it is only selfish, the implication is usually that obligations to other participants in the given social setting are not (fully) met or honoured. The social opportunist participates in a group, cooperates with it or associates with it, not primarily because he wants to "contribute", give or share something to the group, or because he values being part of it as an intrinsic good, but only because he wants to get some advantage out of the participation for himself. Consequently, the participation by the opportunist is substantively only a "means" that serves some other, selfish purpose. This may be tolerated, to the extent that the selfish purpose of the opportunist is compatible with, or does not conflict with, the goals and intentions of the group. It may be regarded as undesirable and unwanted, or indeed a breach of trust or good faith, if that is not the case.

Groups, gatherings, associations, or organizations that operate on the basis of voluntary or involuntary association, or in an atmosphere of mutual trust, may provide resources or contacts to their participants that are:

  • Provided and shared only because of their cooperation, or being together.
  • Conditional on actually participating in the social setting.

Thus, to use those resources or contacts for some selfish aim, paradoxically the social opportunist necessarily has to gain entry, join in and participate socially; there is no other way to gain access to or extract what he wants for himself. Some social groupings may welcome social opportunists, because they can serve a useful function, or can be persuaded (perhaps with group pressure) to change their ways through participation. Other social groupings may try to prevent social opportunism, by imposing strict preconditions of participation to ward off opportunists, or with the aid of rules prohibiting opportunist behaviour.

Marxist theory of opportunism

Karl Marx provided no substantive theory of opportunism; insofar as he used the term, he meant a tactic of convenience or expediency used for self-serving motives, involving some or other kind of political, economic or intellectual trick. Nevertheless, some Marxists claim that Marx's theory of capitalism does imply a substantive theory of opportunism. Its main claim is that opportunism is not simply an aberration or impediment to the efficient functioning of capitalism, but an integral and necessary characteristic of it; capitalist market activity promotes opportunist moves in all sorts of ways. Five kinds of factors are usually cited:

  • Capitalist society constantly reorganizes the structure of human cooperation, so that, more and more, people produce things they do not need themselves, or that are surplus to their own requirements, and can therefore be appropriated by others for personal gain. This causes alienation, and it creates a specific motivational structure. It promotes an inability to respond adequately to the needs of others except in the form of self-interested trade-offs.[31]
  • Although people necessarily have to cooperate to survive, the way they go about this is highly contradictory, and involves "character masks", because there is also constant competition among individuals, businesses and social classes for money, power and prestige. They all have different interests, and are likely to take advantage of others, when they sense they can get away with it. This competition is rarely a level playing field.[32]
  • Capitalist society is itself founded on the exploitation of the labour of others and on unequal exchange. This is enabled by the ownership or control of assets, money and credit that investors use to extract unearned income from the work of others who have to sell their work capacity to survive. It makes it possible for private owners of capital to claim more resources than they have themselves produced or contributed to society. Owning property is rewarded more and more, and working to create it is rewarded less and less.[33]
  • Regulating all the conflicting interests and values, the capitalist state enforces the constraints of a legal system, but this legal system splits moral value and economic value into separate compartments, as well as splitting public and private spheres.[34] While it formally regards all citizens as equal and free, in reality people are very unequally positioned with respect to their social status, power, knowledge and wealth, and consequently also their freedoms. Information asymmetry is not simply a problem in trade, but occurs in every sphere of life, and thus some capitalize on the ignorance of others.[35]
  • Capitalist society is of itself aimless and amorphous with regard to the purposes of human life, lacking any shared, consensual ethic. Any candidate for such an ethic, such as a religion, is only as influential as the power that exists to assert it, but even so its norms are constantly contradicted in practice. Capitalism makes human development conditional on the unbridled pursuit of self-enrichment. This promotes personal qualities such as egoism and selfishness, where people try to "privatize the gains and socialize the losses."[36]

Taken together, these five factors make it difficult for any individual or group to reconcile self-interest with the general interest, genuinely and durably, and it means that moral double standards are very pervasive.[37] In turn, that creates a total environment where opportunism can flourish – including within the socialist movement. In fact, "opportunism" as a political term began to be used widely among Marxists, when the parliamentarians from the leading party of the Second International, the German Social Democratic Party, voted in favour of the war credits necessary at the beginning of World War I.[38] Marxist critics argued that this policy was a total abandonment of socialist principles, especially the principle of anti-militarism and the international solidarity of the working class.[39] Since that time, opportunism has been often defined by Marxists as a policy that puts special interests ahead of the interests of the working class[40]

Legal opportunism

Main article: Legal opportunism

Legal opportunism is a wide area of human activity, which refers generally to a type of abuse of the proper intention of legal arrangements (the "spirit of the law" as distinguished from the letter of the law). More specifically, it refers to deliberately manipulating legal arrangements for purposes they were not meant for, guided by self-interested motives. Usually, legal opportunism is understood to occur legally: it is itself not necessarily a "crime" (a violation of the law or an unlawful act), but it could be considered "immoral" ("there ought to be a law against it"). The general effect of legal opportunism, if it really occurs, is that it discredits the rule of law or destroys the legitimacy of particular legal rules in the eyes of the people affected by them. Inversely, if people perceive a legal framework as arbitrary, obstructive or irrelevant, they are tempted to search for opportunities to find ways "around the law", without formally breaking the law.

Typical of legal opportunists is that they accept or approve of the application of legal rules when it suits their own interest but reject or disapprove of the application when the rules are against their interest (or if taking self-interested action would mean breaking the law).[41] The law should serve them, and not the other way around; or, there is "one rule for them, and another rule for other people." Often, legal opportunism is enabled because a rule must be interpreted in order to apply it, where the chosen interpretation is precisely the one that favours one's self-interest. Since there are many dubious ways to manipulate the applicability of legal rules and procedures for selfish purposes, a general definition of legal opportunism (one which covers all cases) is exceptionally difficult. Legal opportunism can involve practices such as the following:

  • Making or changing laws not for the good of the country as a whole, but to benefit a particular interest group in the country.
  • Making or changing laws, primarily to benefit the position of the law-makers themselves.[42]
  • Applying or referring to legal procedures not for the sake of obtaining justice (or so that justice is served), but mainly with the aim of making money out of it, or promote one’s own position, or to place competitors at a disadvantage.
  • Exploiting legal loopholes or ambiguities for personal gain or to the advantage of a particular organization.
  • In some cases, "tinkering with" bad legislation, formalities or rulings "after the fact": after it is proved that a legal rule previously established is definitely unjust, wrong, inapplicable, mistaken etc. or incriminating someone using a new rule adopted only after the alleged crime was committed.
  • Deliberately "embellishing" selective evidence relevant to a legal situation, to benefit one's own position, in ways that are not strictly illegal.
  • Trying to sway legal opinion about a case by using arguments or utterances that appeal to the audience, but have substantively nothing to do with the case at hand.
  • "Cherry-picking" pieces of evidence, rules or precedents to construct a justification for the policy option that favour's one's own interest.

Spiritual opportunism

Main article: Spiritual opportunism

Spiritual opportunism refers to the exploitation of spiritual ideas (or of the spirituality of others, or of spiritual authority): for personal gain, partisan interests or selfish motives. Usually the implication is that doing so is unprincipled in some way, although it may cause no harm and involve no abuse. In other words, religion becomes a means to achieve something that is alien to it, or things are projected into religion that do not belong there.

If a religious authority acquires influence over the "hearts and minds" of people who are believers in a religion, and therefore can "tap into" the most intimate and deepest-felt concerns of believers, it can also gain immense power from that. This power can be used in a self-interested manner, exploiting opportunities to benefit the position of the religious authority or its supporters in society. This could be considered as inconsistent with the real intentions of the religious belief, or it might show lack of respect for the spiritual autonomy of others. The "good faith" of people is then taken advantage of, in ways that involve some kind of deceit, or some dubious, selfish motive.

The term spiritual opportunism is also used in the sense of casting around for suitable spiritual beliefs borrowed and cobbled together in some way to justify, condemn or "make sense of" particular ways of behaving, usually with some partisan or ulterior motive. This may not be abusive, but it often gives rise to criticisms or accusations[43] that the given spiritual beliefs:

  • are not an organic, sincere or authentic expression of the real nature of the people who contrived them.
  • do not really express what people's lives are about, but are in some way an "artificial add-on".
  • lack any deeper principled foundation, and are more an "eclectic, self-serving concoction"
  • are made to serve partisan interests, contrary to the real intention of the beliefs.

Supporters of traditional religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism sometimes complain that people (such as New Age enthusiasts) seek out spiritual beliefs that serve only themselves, as a form of "spiritual opportunism". Such complaints are often highly controversial, because people are considered to have the right to their own spiritual beliefs (they may not have that right, to the extent that they are socially excluded unless they profess certain spiritual beliefs, but they may only subscribe "formally" or "outwardly" to them).

Spiritual opportunism sometimes refers also to the practice of proselytizing one's spiritual beliefs when any opportunity to do so arises, for the purpose of winning over, or persuading others, about the superiority of these beliefs. In this context, the spiritual opportunist may engage in various actions, themselves not directly related to the spiritual beliefs, with the specific aim of convincing others of the superiority of his own belief system – it may effectively amount to "buying their support".

See also


  1. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/opportunism
  2. E.g. Donald L. Luskin, "Newt's Bain Opportunism Is Mitt's Opportunity". Wall Street Journal, 17 January 2012.[1]
  3. Shraga F. Biran, Opportunism: How to Change the World--One Idea at a Time. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
  4. Luke Johnson, "A new lexicon to celebrate capitalism", Financial Times, October 25, 2011.
  5. According to the Grand Larousse encyclopédique, opportunism was the name given to the cautious reformism and nationalism of French Republicans, who advocated moderate policies to consolidate the French Third Republic after the eviction of the monarchists. The French Opportunists did not call themselves by this name; rather, the term was used by French radicals to describe centrist and centre-left politics in the country. Possibly, the term was originally popularized by Victor Henri Rochefort, Marquis de Rochefort-Luçay, who used it in his criticisms of Léon Gambetta.
  6. Louise Lucas and Andrew Bounds, "Unilever's pension move prompts strike". Financial Times, December 9, 2011.
  7. The quotation is attributed to Baldwin, according to a Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, but the exact source is unclear.
  8. cited in Daniel Singer, Is Socialism Doomed? The Meaning of Mitterrand. Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 189. Perhaps the quote referred back to a line in John Milton's Paradise Lost according to which it is, "Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven."
    The mind is its own place, and in it self
    Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
    What matter where, if I be still the same,
    And what I should be, all but less then he
    Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
    We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
    Here for his envy, will not drive us hence
    Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
    To reign is worth ambition though in Hell
    Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n. (Book 1)
  9. Joris Lammers & Diederik A. Stapel, "How power influences moral thinking". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 97, No. 2, August 2009, pp. 279-289.
  10. Borzou Daragahi, "Libya: Back to the bad old ways". Financial times, February 16, 2012.
  11. "Government's sudden need to debate terror bill smacks of opportunism", The Globe and Mail, 22 April 2013.[3]
  12. Farah Stockman, "Opportunist of war". The Boston Globe, 13 december 2011.[4]
  13. Bogdan Mieczkowski, Dysfunctional Bureaucracy: A Comparative and Historical Perspective. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991, p. 37.
  14. Chester Barnard has a chapter on the "theory of opportunism" in his classic work The Functions of the Executive (Harvard University Press, originally published in 1938).
  15. Graham Scambler, "Sex Work Stigma: Opportunist Migrants in London". Sociology, vol. 41, no. 6, December 2007, pp. 1079-1096.
  16. Michael Ruse, The Oxford handbook of philosophy of biology. Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 199.
  17. Bartareau, T. (1996). "Foraging Behaviour of Trigona Carbonaria (Hymenoptera: Apidae) at Multiple-Choice Feeding Stations". Australian Journal of Zoology. 143. 
  18. See e.g. Caroline B. Glick, "Column one: Israel's premier opportunist". In: Jerusalem Post, 22 July 2011.[5]
  19. E.g. As'ad AbuKhalil, "Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Political Opportunism". Al Alakhbar English, 28 March 2012.[6]
  20. Chao C. Chen, Mike W. Peng, Patrick A. Saparito, "Individualism, Collectivism, and Opportunism: A Cultural Perspective on Transaction Cost Economics". In: Journal of Management, Vol. 28 No. 4, 2002, pp. 567–583.[7]
  21. Thomas C. Leonard, "The price is wrong: causes and consequences of ethical restraint in trade." Journal des Economistes et des Etudes Humaines, Volume 14, numéro 4, Décembre 2004, pp 1-17.[8]
  22. Kurt Eggert, "Limiting abuse and opportunism by mortgage servicers". In: Housing Policy Debate (Fannie Mae Foundation), Vol. 15, Issue 3, 2004.[9]
  23. Damian Saunders, "Mark Hurd and HP, economic opportunism and greed, one year on." Opinion, 30 January 2010.[10] Dan Ackman, "Kozlowski Speaks!". Forbes Magazine, 28 April 2005.[11] Ken Frost, "The Ongoing Trials of The Late Michael Jackson: Greed and Opportunism." 2 February 2005.[12]
  24. In his book Self-policing in politics: the political economy of reputational controls on politicians (Princeton University Press, 2004, p.21).
  25. See e.g. G. Richard Shell, "Opportunism and trust in the Negotiation of Commercial Contracts: Toward a New Cause of Action." Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 44, March 1991, pp. 221-282.
  26. Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, "Critiques of transaction cost economics: An overview". Organizations and markets, September 2009 [13]
  27. See further Kuntara Pukthuanthong and Harry J. Turtle, "Legal Opportunism, Litigation Risk, and IPO Underpricing", January 2009 [14]; Paul J. Zak (ed.), Moral markets: the critical role of values in the economy. Princeton University Press, 2008.
  28. Reinhard Bachmann and Akbar Zaheer (eds.), Handbook of trust research. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2006, p. 201.
  29. Paul Seabright, The company of strangers: a natural history of economic life. Princeton University Press, 2004, p. 5.[15]
  30. Richard Swedberg, interview with Kenneth Arrow, in: Richard Swedberg, Economics and Sociology. Redefining their boundaries: conversations with economists and sociologists. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, p. 137.
  31. See Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 1844. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959.
  32. See Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1981.
  33. See Karl Marx, "The general law of accumulation", in: Capital Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1976. Steven Mufson and Jia Lynn Yang, "Capital gains tax rates benefiting wealthy feed growing gap between rich and poor", in: Washington Post, 12 September 2011.
  34. See e.g. Heide Gerstenberger, Impersonal Power: History and theory of the bourgeois state. Haymarket Books, 2009.
  35. See: Samuel Bowles, Richard Edwards and Frank Roosevelt, Understanding Capitalism: Competition, Command and Change. Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2005.
  36. See e.g. Psychology of the Private Individual: Critique of Bourgeois Consciousness. Gegenstandpunkt, 2009 [16]
  37. Ernest Mandel, "Marx, Engels en het probleem van de zogenaamde 'dubbele moraal'", in: Veelzijdig marxisme, acta van het colloqium “De actualiteit van Karl Marx” – in opdracht van het Instituut voor Marxistische Studies, 1983
  38. Pierre Broué, The German revolution 1917-1923. Leiden: Brill, 2005, p. 55-56.
  39. See e.g. V.I. Lenin, "Opportunism, and the Collapse of the Second International", 1915. V.I Lenin
  40. See e.g. Elif Çağlı, "A Dangerous Tendency: Opportunism"
  41. Joanna Brylak, "Legal awareness and access to law". University of Warsaw, c. 2007, p. 5. [17]
  42. "It should be no surprise that when rich men take control of the government, they pass laws that are favorable to themselves. The surprise is that those who are not rich vote for such people, even though they should know from bitter experience that the rich will continue to rip off the rest of us. Perhaps the reason is that rich men are very clever at covering up what they do." - Andrew Greeley, "U.S. should try to reduce income disparity". Chicago Sun-Times, 18 February 2001.
  43. An example is Robert M. Price, Top Secret: The Truth Behind Today’s Pop Mysticisms. Prometheus Books, 2008