General definition

Opportunism is the conscious policy and practice of taking selfish advantage of circumstances, with little regard for principles. Opportunist actions are expedient actions guided primarily by self-interested motives. The term can be applied to individuals, groups, organizations, styles, behaviours, and trends. Opportunism or "opportunistic behavior" is an important concept in such fields as biology
Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy. Biology is a vast subject containing many subdivisions, topics, and disciplines...

, transaction cost economics, game theory
Game theory
Game theory is a mathematical method for analyzing calculated circumstances, such as in games, where a person’s success is based upon the choices of others...

, ethics
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

, psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

, sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

 and politics
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...


Important distinctions

  • 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 and disregard for relevant (ethical) principles, (intended) goals or the shared concerns of a group.
  • Although human opportunism often has a strong negative (pejorative
    Pejoratives , including name slurs, are words or grammatical forms that connote negativity and express contempt or distaste. A term can be regarded as pejorative in some social groups but not in others, e.g., hacker is a term used for computer criminals as well as quick and clever computer experts...

    ) 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 held).
  • 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. In a war situation or crisis, this may be regarded as justifiable, but in a civilized situation it may be regarded as unprincipled ("taking unfair advantage of the situation").
  • Taking a realistic
    Realism, Realist or Realistic are terms that describe any manifestation of philosophical realism, the belief that reality exists independently of observers, whether in philosophy itself or in the applied arts and sciences. In this broad sense it is frequently contrasted with Idealism.Realism in the...

     or practical approach to a problem can involve weak forms of opportunism - for the sake of doing something that will work, or which will successfully solve the problem, a previously agreed principle is knowingly compromised or disregarded, with the justification that any alternative action would, in an overall sense, have a worse effect.
  • Although it may be disapproved of or criticized ("there ought to be a law against it"), opportunist behaviour is not necessarily criminal or illegal at all.


In choosing or utilizing opportunities, human opportunism is most likely to occur:
  • where people can make the most gains for themselves at the least cost to themselves.
  • where relevant internal or external controls on their behaviour are absent.
  • where people are pressured to choose and act.

If people are criticized for being "opportunists", this usually refers to a situation in which the beliefs and principles which people have are being put to the test (or are being challenged).

Possible biases

To identify and understand opportunist behaviour among people, it is often necessary to refer to the intentions or motive of the people involved, in relation to an accepted behavioural norm. Since what is not permissible (or frowned upon) in one culture may be normal in another, an element of cultural bias can occur in defining behaviours as "opportunist".


The English term "opportunism" is possibly borrowed from the Italian expression opportunismo (which in 19th-century Italian politics meant "exploiting the prevailing circumstances or opportunities to gain immediate advantage for oneself or one's own group") or from the opportunist Republicans
Opportunist Republicans
The Opportunist Republicans , also known as the Moderates , were a faction of French Republicans who believed, after the proclamation of the Third Republic in 1870, that the regime could only be consolidated by successive phases...

 in France, and it entered the English language in the 1870s.

In Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

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

In Roman mythology, Portunes was a god of keys, doors and livestock. He protected the warehouses where grain was stored...

 was originally the Roman god guarding keys, doors and livestock, who protected grainstores, later also the god of harbours who protected ships and seamen.

Moral connotations of human opportunism

As a style of human behaviour, opportunism has the connotation of a lack of integrity
Integrity is a concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. In ethics, integrity is regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one's actions...

, 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, i.e. it is ultimately impossible to be continuously selfish and remain consistent at the same time. 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.

Some people regard an opportunist stance positively as a legitimate choice, which can be the lesser evil. Thus, the British Conservative statesman Stanley Baldwin
Stanley Baldwin
Stanley Baldwin, 1st Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, KG, PC was a British Conservative politician, who dominated the government in his country between the two world wars...

 is supposed to have quipped:
The quip highlights that "opportunism" is not infrequently used as a term of abuse, but also that it involves moral ambiguity.
  • The somewhat apologetic suggestion is that, faced with the imperative to act, then not to be an opportunist would be to disadvantage oneself; and that the greater harm is caused by not doing what is to one's own advantage. Adhering to principles too tightly would cause one to fail, be blinded to the opportunities that exist, or be unwilling to take necessary risks.

  • Baldwin's quip could be taken to imply that opportunism equates to choosing to pursue one's self-interest as a supreme principle of survival; labeling somebody an "opportunist" would be presuming a lack of integrity, perhaps out of ignorance about what his or her integrity consists in (obviously, availing oneself of an opportunity does not automatically make one an "opportunist").
  • Baldwin could also be interpreted as ridiculing accusations or anxieties about opportunism as narrow-minded - by suggesting that, while others are being blamed, the accusers are motivated by a lack of creative insight into all the opportunities that could be taken up, in a way consistent with principles; an obsessive focus on "principles" or "opportunism" would simply be counterproductive, or might only mask
    A mask is an article normally worn on the face, typically for protection, disguise, performance or entertainment. Masks have been used since antiquity for both ceremonial and practical purposes...

     what are in reality quite different motivations.
  • Yet framing opportunism as a lesser evil implies the absence of clear positive principles of what would be good to do; Baldwin could be understood as saying that the political process is itself the means by which it is sorted out what those principles should be, or that politics can achieve no more than prevent worse things from happening (in his play Hamlet
    The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or more simply Hamlet, is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601...

    , William Shakespeare
    William Shakespeare
    William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

     refers to the conservative notion of being "cruel to be kind" - so that "bad begins and worse remains behind").

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" - it may be an inner conflict of a person, or a conflict imposed by the situation faced. Thus, substantively, opportunism refers to a propensity to use opportunities which present themselves in a self-interested, biased or one-sided manner, such that it 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
Pejoratives , including name slurs, are words or grammatical forms that connote negativity and express contempt or distaste. A term can be regarded as pejorative in some social groups but not in others, e.g., hacker is a term used for computer criminals as well as quick and clever computer experts...

 connotation of morally unsound behaviour, or behaviour which sacrifices a greater good for the sake of gaining an advantage for oneself or one's own group. Such behaviour need not be criminal because there may be no law against it - opportunism as a general category is not a crime - but it may be perceived as "criminal" in the sense of being "immoral" or "unjustifiable" or "repugnant" to the extent that it makes selfishness supreme.

Moralists may have a distaste for opportunism, insofar as opportunism implies the violation of a moral principle. Yet they may themselves be opportunist to the extent that they appeal to moral principles when it suits themselves, while remaining silent when the morals they favour are actually challenged, violated or compromised. Thus opportunism can be associated with expediency or hypocrisy
Hypocrisy is the state of pretending to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that one does not actually have. Hypocrisy involves the deception of others and is thus a kind of lie....


Opportunism and human behaviour

In human behaviour generally, opportunism concerns the relationship between what people do, and their basic principles, nature or motivations, when faced with risks, changes, 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 which is contrary either to a previously established principle or another principle which ought to have higher priority.

Hence opportunist behaviour is usually regarded at least as questionable or dubious (it is frowned upon or derided), and at most as unjustifiable or completely illegitimate (it is an affront to sensibilities or rules). Opportunism is regarded as unhealthy, as a disorder or as a character deficiency, if selfishly pursuing an opportunity is blatantly anti-social
Anti-social behaviour
Anti-social behaviour is behaviour that lacks consideration for others and that may cause damage to society, whether intentionally or through negligence, as opposed to pro-social behaviour, behaviour that helps or benefits society...

 (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).

Sociology and psychology

The sociology and psychology of human opportunism is somewhat related to the study of gambling
Gambling is the wagering of money or something of material value on an event with an uncertain outcome with the primary intent of winning additional money and/or material goods...

 behaviour, and centres on the way people respond to risk
Risk is the potential that a chosen action or activity will lead to a loss . The notion implies that a choice having an influence on the outcome exists . Potential losses themselves may also be called "risks"...

 and opportunity, and what kind of motivation and organizational culture is involved. Both the element of risk and opportunity play a role, since seizing an opportunity may carry no risk or eliminate risk (that might indeed be the very reason for it), while creating an opportunity may be conditional on taking a risk ("if we take this risk, then we will have an opportunity"). In order 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
Integrity is a concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. In ethics, integrity is regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one's actions...

, moral character
Moral character
Moral character or character is an evaluation of a particular individual's durable moral qualities. The concept of character can imply a variety of attributes including the existence or lack of virtues such as integrity, courage, fortitude, honesty, and loyalty, or of good behaviors or habits...

, personal insight
Insight is the understanding of a specific cause and effect in a specific context. Insight can be used with several related meanings:*a piece of information...

 or self-awareness
Self-awareness is the capacity for introspection and the ability to reconcile oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals...

, personal flexibility
Flexibility (anatomy)
Flexibility or limberness refers to the absolute range of movement in a joint or series of joints, and length in muscles that cross the joints. Flexibility is variable between individuals, particularly in terms of differences in muscle length of multi-joint muscles...

 and balance
Balance (ability)
In biomechanics, balance is an ability to maintain the center of gravity of a body within the base of support with minimal postural sway. When exercising the ability to balance, one is said to be balancing....

. It also depends on the ability to judge the consequences of different courses of action correctly. Strong emotions and desire
Desire (emotion)
Desire is a sense of longing for a person or object or hoping for an outcome. Desire is the fire that sets action aflame. The same sense is expressed by emotions such as "craving" or "hankering". When a person desires something or someone, their sense of longing is excited by the enjoyment or the...

s may also play a role, and much may depend on how permissive a person, group or organization is (see permissive society
Permissive society
The permissive society is a society where social norms are becoming increasingly liberal. This usually accompanies a change in what is considered deviant. While typically preserving the rule "do not harm others", a permissive society would have few other moral codes...

). 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
Morale, also known as esprit de corps when discussing the morale of a group, is an intangible term used to describe the capacity of people to maintain belief in an institution or a goal, or even in oneself and others...

 of an organization. Often people can be inclined to think "what's good for the goose, is good for the gander", or "if it's OK for them to do it, it's OK for me to do it as well". If however other people operate according to quite different principles, this kind of attitude might be interpreted as "opportunist".

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. For example, the scope for opportunism by a prisoner
A prisoner is someone incarcerated in a prison, jail or similar facility.Prisoner or The Prisoner may also refer to:* Prisoner of war, a soldier in wartime, held as by an enemy* Political prisoner, someone held in prison for their ideology...

 inside a prison
A prison is a place in which people are physically confined and, usually, deprived of a range of personal freedoms. Imprisonment or incarceration is a legal penalty that may be imposed by the state for the commission of a crime...

 is usually not very great; and if, in one's own mind, one simply does not believe that there are any opportunities, it is rather difficult to be an "opportunist". Opportunists know that there are opportunities to be had, and they are really able to avail themselves of those opportunities for their own benefit.

Eight main contexts

Personalities and beliefs are themselves shaped by the specific environment in which they are formed. 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:
  • Success: opportunism often involves the presence of a very strong desire
    Desire (emotion)
    Desire is a sense of longing for a person or object or hoping for an outcome. Desire is the fire that sets action aflame. The same sense is expressed by emotions such as "craving" or "hankering". When a person desires something or someone, their sense of longing is excited by the enjoyment or the...

     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.

  • 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
    Unfair competition
    Unfair competition in a sense means that the competitors compete on unequal terms, because favourable or disadvantageous conditions are applied to some competitors but not to others; or that the actions of some competitors actively harm the position of others with respect to their ability to...

    , irresponsible or unethical, but if relevant regulation is lacking, then what fairness would consist in may itself be in dispute. Any situation which enables someone to take personal advantage of it, or take advantage of others, facilitates opportunism.

  • Power: according to Lord Acton's famous dictum
    In United States legal terminology, a dictum is a statement of opinion or belief considered authoritative though not binding, because of the authority of the person making it....

    , "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. If there are only weak sanctions against unprincipled behaviour, this creates a setting in which 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.

  • Competition: in a situation of intense conflict
    Group conflict
    Group conflict, or hostilities between different groups, is a pervasive feature common to all levels of social organization .. Although group conflict is one of the most complex phenomena studied by social scientists, the history of the human race evidences a series of group-level conflicts that...

    , competition
    Competition is a contest between individuals, groups, animals, etc. for territory, a niche, or a location of resources. It arises whenever two and only two strive for a goal which cannot be shared. Competition occurs naturally between living organisms which co-exist in the same environment. For...

     or war
    War is a state of organized, armed, and often prolonged conflict carried on between states, nations, or other parties typified by extreme aggression, social disruption, and usually high mortality. War should be understood as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political...

    , 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. Normally an army
    An army An army An army (from Latin arma "arms, weapons" via Old French armée, "armed" (feminine), in the broadest sense, is the land-based military of a nation or state. It may also include other branches of the military such as the air force via means of aviation corps...

     operates with military discipline, but in the heat of a battle combatants may act on opportunities or take risks contrary to this discipline, perhaps because of the perception that it is necessary to survive. Or, a soccer player may trip up an opponent in the urge to score a goal. A businessman may see a chance that is "too good to pass up", even although acting on it is improper in the given context. In some situations, political pressures or peer pressure
    Peer pressure
    Peer pressure refers to the influence exerted by a peer group in encouraging a person to change his or her attitudes, values, or behavior in order to conform to group norms. Social groups affected include membership groups, when the individual is "formally" a member , or a social clique...

     may be intense, causing people to opt for actions which ordinarily they would consider contrary to what they really believe in.

  • 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. It enables one to "try out" initiatives to gain personal advantage without the risks being too great. Conversely, a person's existence may be so precarious, that he has "nothing to lose" by seizing any opportunity available to benefit himself. Being driven into or trapped in a crisis situation, or caught in a tight spot, a person might try any opportunity to get out of it, irrespective of whether that is consistent behaviour or not. Living in extremely difficult situations can damage human character, and it may be that only the strongest personalities can remain steadfast and consistent. Opportunist behaviour can be self-reinforcing: if there is a lot of opportunism, then not to be opportunist onself 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, it may be that people will try to "grab what they can" from it and "help themselves" without regard to the consequences for others, perhaps with the thought that if they do not avail themselves of this opportunity, other will (and that if others do, it will disadvantage oneself). Examples might be a gold rush
    Gold rush
    A gold rush is a period of feverish migration of workers to an area that has had a dramatic discovery of gold. Major gold rushes took place in the 19th century in Australia, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, and the United States, while smaller gold rushes took place elsewhere.In the 19th and early...

     and the tragedy of the commons
    Tragedy of the commons
    The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this...

    . 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. Publicly-owned assets, or assets held in common, may also be exploited for private gain, if there are no clear rules and sanctions which prevent it.

  • 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
    Disinformation is intentionally false or inaccurate information that is spread deliberately. For this reason, it is synonymous with and sometimes called black propaganda. It is an act of deception and false statements to convince someone of untruth...

    . 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 scope exists for opportunist behaviour. Faced with an excess of possible choices, a person, group or organization may also become disoriented, and "plump" arbitrarily for a course of action that serves self-interest, regardless of principles.

  • 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.

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 a set of rules which makes opportunist behaviour extremely difficult to operate, because there are clear and immediate penalties for opportunist behaviour. Other organizations may be so loosely structured and so lacking in controls and sanctions regulating behaviour, that opportunist behaviour is almost unavoidable. Thus, the nature of an organization itself may promote or inhibit opportunist behaviour; it depends greatly on the controls and checks it can exercise over its members, and on what sort of people it will attract.

  • 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: behaviour which in some organizations is regarded as "opportunist", may be regarded as perfectly acceptable in others, or tolerated as "normal". A "commercial attitude" might be to make as much money as one can, and this may be accepted as normal by the commercial people concerned, although others would regard it as "opportunist". Or, in a game
    A game is structured playing, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool. Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more often an expression of aesthetic or ideological elements...

    , some "opportunist moves" may be permitted, while others are not.

  • 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 which deviate from the stated goals of the organization (for example, Robert Michels
    Robert Michels
    Robert Michels was a German sociologist who wrote on the political behavior of intellectual elites and contributed to elite theory...

     refers to an iron law of oligarchy
    Iron law of oligarchy
    The iron law of oligarchy is a political theory, first developed by the German syndicalist sociologist Robert Michels in his 1911 book, Political Parties. It states that all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop into...

    ). However, this is not always the case, a lot depends on how people are organized and what morality they have.

  • 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 will tend 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. Even in a very conservative organization, opportunism may also occur, insofar as it still has to find ways to cope with risks, changes and opportunities.

Professional opportunism

In professional ethics
Professional ethics
Professional ethics encompass the personal and corporate standards of behaviour expected of professionals.- Professional ethics :Professional people and those working in acknowledged professions exercise specialist knowledge and skill...

, the concept of opportunism plays a role in defining criteria for professional integrity. In providing a service, a professional may have a lot of personal discretion (choice or leeway) about how exactly he will provide it; to a great extent, he may be able to make his own judgements, interpretations and decisions about the exact approach he will take - without there being any explicit rule which says that he "necessarily has to do this, or to do that". Such a situation can be exploited with opportunist motives, contrary to the stated ethics of a profession. Consequently, it becomes necessary - for the sake of preserving professional integrity - to explicate "guiding norms" which 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.

At issue is the motive and intention involved in pursuing, creating, or expressing particular ideas (why certain ideas are being taken up), and the relevant contrast is between:
  • the intellectual's stated principles, versus ideas which he publicly or outwardly supports, endorses or concerns himself with.
  • the original intention of ideas such as it is normally understood, versus the uses to which they are being put.

The phenomenon of intellectual opportunism is frequently associated by its critics with careerism and dubious, unprincipled self-promotion, where ideas become "just another commodity" or a "bargaining tool". 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. The intellectual opportunist:
  • "holds his mouth where the money or the support is" or where the opportunities for self-advancement or self-promotion are.
  • "hires out" his own ideas for purposes which conflict with his real nature or the organization he works for, only for the purpose of gaining personal advantage.
  • latches onto any readily available ideas or "picks the brains of others" to advance or defend his own position.

Often intellectual opportunism is therefore understood as a sign of lack of integrity
Integrity is a concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. In ethics, integrity is regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one's actions...

 or intellectual shallowness, to the extent that the opportunist is not concerned with the worth of the ideas in themselves, but only with how he can benefit from them himself by pursuing them. As a corollary, the intellectual opportunist is often apt to change his opinions, and "change his line" rapidly or arbitrarily, according to where he can gain personal advantage, in a manner which is not consistent or principled.

The implication is usually that ideas are no longer being pursued because of their intrinsic merit or worth, or out of a genuine concern with what is at stake in an argument or idea, but only because of the instrumental value of ideas, i.e. the selfish advantage that can be gained from pursuing some ideas in preference to other ones. Observably ventilating or "advertising" suitably formulated ideas is then merely a means or a "tool" for self-advancement or the promotion of a group or organization, giving rise to accusations that the real intention of particular ideas is being twisted around to serve an alien or improper purpose. The general outcome may be that the ideas involved, though plausible at a superficial level, lack any deeper coherence, the coherence being ruled out by lack of regard for relevant principles.

Intellectual opportunism may appear obvious or crass, if the selfish motives for engaging in it are clear. It may also be very difficult to detect if:
  • the intellectual opportunist is clever and intelligent, while his audience is not, or his audience lacks sufficient relevant information to "judge the intellectual act". A clever intellectual opportunist may be able to reconcile his changing stories and his ulterior selfish motives in such a way, that his intellectual concerns seem perfectly principled and consistent.
  • it is very difficult to distinguish between legitimately seizing an intellectual opportunity with sincere motives, and using an intellectual opportunity for some selfish, ulterior motive.
  • the intellectual opportunist is himself not aware of his own opportunism, i.e. what it means, or what its broader significance is, regarding his own pursuit of intellectual opportunities as perfectly legitimate. In this case, the true motives or the effects of a course of action may be unclear or in dispute.
  • the relevant and appropriate moral norms are themselves in dispute, so that the validity of the assessment of "opportunism" in intellectual behaviour depends on "point of view".

To prove intellectual opportunism by an individual or a group may therefore require very comprehensive knowledge pertaining to the case. An additional complicating factor is the influence of cultural differences on human intentions. Behavior which is regarded as opportunist in one culture may not be so regarded in another, a difference in norms of moral propriety. For example, in American culture there is a much greater preoccupation with self-marketing, advertising and self-promotion, which in European countries might be regarded as "crass opportunism", because the culturally appropriate ways to assert self-interest or self-concern are different. There may however be just as much opportunism in Europe as anywhere else, but with a different cultural style. People may say, "all's fair in love and war", but that also means that if one can represent something as a war or a matter of love, one can justify any action, since love and war permit actions which would ordinarily be regarded as unprincipled or illegitimate.

Intellectual opportunism sometimes also refers to a specific school or trend of thought, or to a characteristic of a particular intellectual development. Thus, a certain set of people who share ideas are then said to display a tendency for "intellectual opportunism", often with the connotation that they deliberately act intellectually in a certain way, to gain special favor with an authority, group or organization; to justify a state of affairs that benefits themselves; or because they have the motive of financial or personal gain.

"Theoretical opportunism" in science refers to the attempt to save a theory from refutation, or protect it from criticism, with the use of ad hoc
Ad hoc
Ad hoc is a Latin phrase meaning "for this". It generally signifies a solution designed for a specific problem or task, non-generalizable, and not intended to be able to be adapted to other purposes. Compare A priori....

 methods which in some way lack deeper scientific consistency or credibility. Theorists may believe so strongly in the value of their own theory, that they will try to "explain away" inconsistencies or contrary evidence - borrowing any idea that plausibly fits with the theory, rather than developing the theory in such a way, that it can truly account for the relevant evidence.

Evolutionary opportunism

In the theory of evolution
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

, "evolutionary opportunism" refers to a specific pattern of development in the history of a species. The behaviour, culture or body part of an species which had a long time ago evolved to serve a particular purpose or function may subsequently, in different conditions, also lend itself to a very different positive purpose or function - which helps the species to survive.

Thus, in a new stage of evolution, a behaviour, culture or physical characteristic which already existed a long time, can respond to a wholly new opportunity and acquire a new role. It turns out to have new advantages or potential benefits which were previously never utilized by the species, and, therefore, it persists or is retained in the adaptation to new conditions, even although the original purpose it served may be long gone.

A similar idea is also used by historians studying the development of organizations, institutions, traditions and cultures across long intervals of time: a "traditional" practice persists, although its original intention has been lost or is forgotten, simply because it has gained a new content, and serves a new useful purpose.

Biological opportunism

In biology
Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy. Biology is a vast subject containing many subdivisions, topics, and disciplines...

, an opportunist organism is generally defined as a species which can live and thrive in variable environmental conditions, and sustain itself from a number of different food sources, or which 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 microbiology
Microbiology is the study of microorganisms, which are defined as any microscopic organism that comprises either a single cell , cell clusters or no cell at all . This includes eukaryotes, such as fungi and protists, and prokaryotes...

, 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
Bacteria are a large domain of prokaryotic microorganisms. Typically a few micrometres in length, bacteria have a wide range of shapes, ranging from spheres to rods and spirals...

, viruses, fungi, and protozoa
Protozoa are a diverse group of single-cells eukaryotic organisms, many of which are motile. Throughout history, protozoa have been defined as single-cell protists with animal-like behavior, e.g., movement...

) are ones which, when they invade the host organism, can cause infection
An infection is the colonization of a host organism by parasite species. Infecting parasites seek to use the host's resources to reproduce, often resulting in disease...

 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
Opportunistic infection
An opportunistic infection is an infection caused by pathogens, particularly opportunistic pathogens—those that take advantage of certain situations—such as bacterial, viral, fungal or protozoan infections that usually do not cause disease in a healthy host, one with a healthy immune system...


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.

In the biological disciplines, opportunistic behavior is studied in fields such as evolutionary biology, ecology
Ecology is the scientific study of the relations that living organisms have with respect to each other and their natural environment. Variables of interest to ecologists include the composition, distribution, amount , number, and changing states of organisms within and among ecosystems...

, epidemiology
Epidemiology is the study of health-event, health-characteristic, or health-determinant patterns in a population. It is the cornerstone method of public health research, and helps inform policy decisions and evidence-based medicine by identifying risk factors for disease and targets for preventive...

, and etiology
Etiology is the study of causation, or origination. The word is derived from the Greek , aitiologia, "giving a reason for" ....

, where moral or judgmental overtones do not apply (see also opportunistic pathogens, opportunistic predation
In ecology, predation describes a biological interaction where a predator feeds on its prey . Predators may or may not kill their prey prior to feeding on them, but the act of predation always results in the death of its prey and the eventual absorption of the prey's tissue through consumption...

, phoresis
Phoresis (biology)
In biology, the term phoresis is an inter-species biological interaction in ecology and refers to a form of symbiosis where the symbiont, termed as the phoront, is mechanically transported by its host. Neither organism is physiologically dependent on the other.Examples may be found in the...

, and parasitism
Parasitism is a type of symbiotic relationship between organisms of different species where one organism, the parasite, benefits at the expense of the other, the host. Traditionally parasite referred to organisms with lifestages that needed more than one host . These are now called macroparasites...


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
Career is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a person's "course or progress through life ". It is usually considered to pertain to remunerative work ....

 or obtain status
Social status
In sociology or anthropology, social status is the honor or prestige attached to one's position in society . It may also refer to a rank or position that one holds in a group, for example son or daughter, playmate, pupil, etc....

 or money
Money is any object or record that is generally accepted as payment for goods and services and repayment of debts in a given country or socio-economic context. The main functions of money are distinguished as: a medium of exchange; a unit of account; a store of value; and, occasionally in the past,...

. This may be accepted or tolerated, or it may be criticized because the concerns of others are not adequately taken into consideration.

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
Innocence is a term used to indicate a lack of guilt, with respect to any kind of crime, sin, or wrongdoing. In a legal context, innocence refers to the lack of legal guilt of an individual, with respect to a crime.-Symbolism:...

). In that case, the sexual opportunist is considered to lack sexual and/or personal integrity.

Sexual opportunism has always been a much disputed concept, because:
  • moral norms
    Norm (sociology)
    Social norms are the accepted behaviors within a society or group. This sociological and social psychological term has been defined as "the rules that a group uses for appropriate and inappropriate values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. These rules may be explicit or implicit...

     for the legitimate pursuit of sexual desire are often not agreed upon, or influenced by different religious, cultural or spiritual beliefs. The range of sexual behaviours which are tolerated or not tolerated can vary greatly across time and place. In some cultures, for example, there are very strong social sanctions against “sex purely for the sake of sex”, in other cultures this is regarded more as a private or personal matter, unless it involves unlawful activity. Inversely, the use of sex for a purpose or function unrelated to the sexual activity itself may be tolerated in one context or place, and proscribed in another (see also prostitution
    Prostitution is the act or practice of providing sexual services to another person in return for payment. The person who receives payment for sexual services is called a prostitute and the person who receives such services is known by a multitude of terms, including a "john". Prostitution is one of...

     and sex tourism
    Sex tourism
    Sex tourism is travel to engage in sexual activity with prostitutes.The World Tourism Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, defines sex tourism as "trips organized from within the tourism sector, or from outside this sector but using its structures and networks, with the primary...

  • because a discrepancy between motives considered appropriate, and purely selfish or self-serving motives, may be very difficult to establish, even for the people involved, particularly if an allegedly “opportunist” sexual advance is validated by its acceptance by a potential sexual partner, who responds positively to the opportunity out of personal free will. Thus the exact boundary between “seizing a sexual opportunity” and “sexual opportunism” may in practice be difficult to distinguish. Often sexual seduction
    In social science, seduction is the process of deliberately enticing a person to engage. The word seduction stems from Latin and means literally "to lead astray". As a result, the term may have a positive or negative connotation...

     involves precisely the ‘’disguise’’ of sexual motive, and an attempt to persuade a potential sexual partner that more, or other (honourable) motives are involved than “just sex”, which may or may not be true – without this being easily verifiable, even for the persons involved themselves. The complicating factor is that the motivations or intentions involved in a sexual attraction may not be clear even to those who are party to it.

In a clinical or scientific sense, sexual opportunism is often straightforwardly described as observable sexual promiscuity
In humans, promiscuity refers to less discriminating casual sex with many sexual partners. The term carries a moral or religious judgement and is viewed in the context of the mainstream social ideal for sexual activity to take place within exclusive committed relationships...

 or the observable propensity to engage in casual sex
Casual sex
Casual sex or hooking up refers to certain types of human sexual activity outside the context of a romantic relationship. The term is not always used consistently: some use it to refer to any extramarital sex, some use it to refer to sex in a casual relationship, whereas others reserve its use for...

, whatever the motive. Such an “objective” description is used, because:
  • it may not clear or provable that such behaviour conflicts with relevant principles (unless it demonstrably involves unlawful behaviour).
  • what matters for medical, juridical or scientific purposes is primarily that it occurs, irrespective of what the motives are, or how those motives are morally judged by the people involved or by others.
  • because the judgment that the motives involved are “selfish” or signify “irresponsibility” depends on one’s point of view and cannot, or not easily, be objectively or scientifically established.

Promiscuous behaviour or the pursuit of casual sex can occur in varying degrees, or be circumstantial, but can also be motivated by some kind of sexual addiction
Sexual addiction
Sexual addiction is a popular model to explain hypersexuality—sexual urges, behaviors, or thoughts that appear extreme in frequency or feel out of one's control...

 or hypersexuality
Hypersexuality is extremely frequent or suddenly increased sexual urges or sexual activity. Hypersexuality is typically associated with lowered sexual inhibitions. Although hypersexuality can be caused by some medical conditions or medications, in most cases the cause is unknown...

 in which the opportunist actively “preys” on people who are most likely to satisfy his sexual desires, or are easily available for sexual activity. The practice is normally considered pathological only if it significantly harms the sexual opportunist himself, and/or significantly harms his (potential) sexual partners – in a physical or psychological sense - or if it involves unlawful activity. The definition of "harm" involved may however be contested, insofar as it is not obvious and open to interpretation.

Political opportunism

The term "opportunism" is often used in politics
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...

 and political science
Political science
Political Science is a social science discipline concerned with the study of the state, government and politics. Aristotle defined it as the study of the state. It deals extensively with the theory and practice of politics, and the analysis of political systems and political behavior...

, and by activists campaigning for a cause. The political philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was an Italian historian, philosopher, humanist, and writer based in Florence during the Renaissance. He is one of the main founders of modern political science. He was a diplomat, political philosopher, playwright, and a civil servant of the Florentine Republic...

 as described in The Prince is often regarded as a classic manual of opportunist scheming, and indeed a "Machiavellian" is nowadays defined as "a cunning, amoral, and opportunist person, especially a politician".http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Machiavellian 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 which involves seizing every and any opportunity to extend one's 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. That is, in the urge to make short-term political gains or preserve them, the appropriate relationship between the means being used and the overall goals being aimed for is overlooked. The result might well be, that "short term gain" leads to "long term pain". Thus, after opportunist mistakes have been made and recognized, a lot of soul searching may occur, or "a return to principles" may be advocated, so that the proper relationship between people's principles and their actions is restored.

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. In other words, the question is "how far you can go" without compromising principles or abandoning an agreed-on code of ethics. There may be no quick and easy answer to that, because whether a transgression has occurred cannot be verified, is known only later, or is in dispute. This happens particularly in a new situation where it is uncertain how principles should be applied, or how people should respond to it.
  • Accusations of "opportunism" may be made without proof being available, and they may be open to debate. In this sense, Milton Friedman
    Milton Friedman
    Milton Friedman was an American economist, statistician, academic, and author who taught at the University of Chicago for more than three decades...

     remarked that "One man's opportunism is another man's statesmanship". A politician might for instance argue that, although his action seems unprincipled at first sight, when placed in a broader perspective it conforms exactly to what his constituency believes in. In an act of persuasion
    Persuasion is a form of social influence. It is the process of guiding or bringing oneself or another toward the adoption of an idea, attitude, or action by rational and symbolic means.- Methods :...

    , he aims to convince people that his action is principled. Whether he is correct or not, may however be knowable only with the benefit of hindsight, long after the action occurred; the total effect of a strategic political decision may not be known until years or even decades after it was taken. When the outcome of an action is uncertain, a politician might argue "history will prove me right".

  • Often the opportunist operates in a situation where there exist many unknowns, and where there is no broad agreement on how one should respond to the situation in a principled way. Far-sighted leadership is required, but in the absence of authoritative knowledge. In that case, whether behaviour is opportunist or not, may simply be very difficult to judge. A true opportunist is likely to utilize precisely this ambiguity
    Ambiguity of words or phrases is the ability to express more than one interpretation. It is distinct from vagueness, which is a statement about the lack of precision contained or available in the information.Context may play a role in resolving ambiguity...

     to serve his purpose, capitalizing on human gullibility
    Gullibility is a failure of social intelligence in which a person is easily tricked or manipulated into an ill-advised course of action. It is closely related to credulity, which is the tendency to believe unlikely propositions that are unsupported by evidence....

     or ignorance
    Ignorance is a state of being uninformed . The word ignorant is an adjective describing a person in the state of being unaware and is often used as an insult...


  • Opportunistic behavior may occur in strategic alliances, in which one party uses the relationship to better its position, often at the expense of the other. In this case, one party puts its own interests ahead of the agreed goals of the alliance.

  • A political tendency which has been out-manoeuvred or side-lined may latch on to any kind of opportunity to claw its way back to a position of power and influence. Conversely, a very powerful political group may use its power for opportunistic purposes because it knows that criticism of such action will have no real effect (it is possible to "get away with it").

The role of principles

The term "political opportunism" is often used in a pejorative
Pejoratives , including name slurs, are words or grammatical forms that connote negativity and express contempt or distaste. A term can be regarded as pejorative in some social groups but not in others, e.g., hacker is a term used for computer criminals as well as quick and clever computer experts...

 sense, mainly because it connotes the abandonment of principles or compromising political goals. In that case, the original relationship between means and ends is lost. It may indeed be the case that means become ends in themselves, or that the ends become the means to achieve goals quite different to what was originally intended. Political principles can also be "diluted", reinterpreted or ignored, purely for the sake of promoting a contrived political unity. In consequence, a coherent rationale for being in the same organization is gradually lost; members may then drift away or the organization may decline, split or disintegrate.

In politics, it is sometimes necessary to insist on political principles, while at other times it is necessary to insist on political unity among people who differ in their beliefs or principles. Some compromises usually have to be made. If political principles were typically defined or imposed in a completely inflexible, non-negotiable way, a likely result would be sectarianism
Sectarianism, according to one definition, is bigotry, discrimination or hatred arising from attaching importance to perceived differences between subdivisions within a group, such as between different denominations of a religion, class, regional or factions of a political movement.The ideological...

 or factionalism
Political faction
A political faction is a grouping of individuals, such as a political party, a trade union, or other group with a political purpose. A faction or political party may include fragmented sub-factions, “parties within a party," which may be referred to as power blocs, or voting blocs. The individuals...

, since few people beyond "true believers" could support a political practice based on such rigid positions.
  • Normally, there must be at least some freedom in how political principles are formulated, interpreted, and actually applied; if there are too many rules and principles that people have to adhere to, the result would very likely be, that they simply cannot conform to those principles in practice, or that the bewildering complexity of rules can no longer guide behaviour. In that case, all kinds of errors are likely to occur.

  • Normally principles are therefore understood as a guide to behaviour which assumes both some freedom for individual judgment about how they are to be applied, as well as the responsibility to apply them. If one acts "in good faith", one assumes that relevant principles will be honored in practice, and if that faith is disappointed, that is because in practice the principles were not applied consistently or appropriately.

How political principles are to be implemented is therefore usually open to some interpretation, and in part a personal responsibility. This creates the possibility that the same action is justifiable with reference to different principles, or that how a principle should be put into practice is interpreted in different ways. Just how "principled" an action is may therefore be open to dispute. Hence there is potential for deception in the way that principled behaviour, and deviation from it, is understood and justified. This becomes critically important in understanding opportunism insofar as it is a departure from principled behaviour.
Assessing political opportunism

Political integrity
Integrity is a concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. In ethics, integrity is regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one's actions...

 typically demands an appropriate combination of principled positions and political flexibility, so that a morally consistent behavior results which has due regard for specific circumstances. Thus, whereas it may be necessary to seize a political opportunity when it presents itself, it should ideally be seized also with an appropriate motivation, and on a principled basis. Which is basically what a leader of an increasingly large group aims to accomplish: to ensure that the right things are done for the right reasons.

This ideal may be difficult to honor in practice, with the result that opportunistic mistakes are made. In his famous book Rules for Radicals
Rules for Radicals
Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals is the last book written by community organizer Saul D. Alinsky shortly before his death in 1972...

 (1971, p. 76), community organizer Saul Alinsky
Saul Alinsky
Saul David Alinsky was a Jewish American community organizer and writer. He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing, and has been compared in Playboy magazine to Thomas Paine as being "one of the great American leaders of the nonsocialist left." He is often noted...

 for instance comments that in political organizations, quite often the right things are done for the wrong reasons, and conversely that the wrong things are done for perfectly "correct" reasons - presumably because of differentials in the existing understandings about why something is actually being done, and what the real effect of it will be. If power is wielded by means of special knowledge which others don't have access to, such differentials are obviously likely to persist. This is likely to be the case, insofar as confidentiality
Confidentiality is an ethical principle associated with several professions . In ethics, and in law and alternative forms of legal resolution such as mediation, some types of communication between a person and one of these professionals are "privileged" and may not be discussed or divulged to...

 and secrecy
Secrecy is the practice of hiding information from certain individuals or groups, perhaps while sharing it with other individuals...

 are necessary in politics - if the wrong people get hold of vital information, this could have unfavourable political effects. Thus, people may know "part of the story" but not the "full story" because, for political reasons, it cannot be told. The corollary is that people imagine reasons for political action which differ from the real reasons. This can get in the way of a truly principled approach to politics.

If "there is no such thing as an honest politician", this need not mean that all politicians are liars, but just that they are often not in a position to know or reveal the "complete picture" and thus express selected truths relevant to their actions, rather than "all possible truths which could be told". In that sense, it is quite possible to be a "principled" politician - if that was not so, then (arguably) all politicians are opportunists. Yet if that idea is accepted - and many people who are cynical about politics do believe this - it becomes difficult to explain the professional motivation which politicians have. Namely, if their purpose is only or primarily to serve their self-interest, disregarding any higher principles - which is the hallmark of opportunism - then politics is the least likely vocation, since it requires that politicians serve a collective interest or a cause which is bigger than themselves. They would then be better off in a line of business where they can just pursue their own interest to the full; if they are able to be politicians, they could easily do so. The question is then why they don't, if indeed they are only out to serve themselves.

The counter-argument to this kind of interpretation is that politicians may indeed start out in their career as hopeful idealists aiming to serve the community, but as soon as they become deeply entangled in political processes, their high ideals are abandoned, because then they have to reconcile all kinds of very contradictory situations, and in the process begin to compromise themselves; their political position, which was originally a means to a higher end, becomes an end in itself, a lifestyle. This counter-argument has some validity, but it is not proved thereby that the suggested political evolution is inevitable in all cases. Namely, the politician owes his power only to his ability to serve a cause greater than himself, and represent people based on popular perceptions and trust, and therefore his ability to serve exclusively his own interest in that role is rather limited (he cannot "get away" with many things). At best, the counter-argument indicates that only the strongest characters can withstand the temptations of opportunist behaviour in politics, and maintain personal and political integrity. It may be not so much the politicians themselves who are opportunist, but rather their entourage: those who "climb on the political bandwagon" in order to profit from it for themselves. In this sense, John Keegan
John Keegan
Sir John Keegan OBE FRSL is a British military historian, lecturer, writer and journalist. He has published many works on the nature of combat between the 14th and 21st centuries concerning land, air, maritime, and intelligence warfare, as well as the psychology of battle.-Life and career:John...

Few actions are intrinsically opportunist; they are opportunist in a specific context, or from a specific point of view about means-ends relationships involved. This may make an objective approach
Objective approach
Taking an objective approach to an issue means having due regard for the known valid evidence pertaining to that issue. If relevant valid evidence is denied or falsified, an objective approach is impossible...

 to assessing the presence of opportunism quite difficult, because it may require a lot of "inside knowledge" about the relevant circumstances and about the motives involved.

An objective, rational evaluation of whether a course of action is opportunist or not can only be stated in terms of whether the action and its motivation really did, or did not represent relevant principles (a consistency of means and ends); or whether it was motivated by self-interest or sectional interests rather than the common interest of the party (or parties) represented. Yet insofar as allegations of opportunism reflect a moral judgment, they may also contain a subjective interpretation, emotional preference or partisan viewpoint.
Sources of political opportunism
  • Some political analysts find the source of opportunism in a specific political methodology that is applied to maintain or increase political influence. An example might be so-called suivisme (a French word for political "tail-ending" or "tailism") where people try to follow and infiltrate any movement that shows signs of being popular or capturing significant support, for the purpose of gaining influence. Another version of this is sampling the opinions of the population with surveys and "focus groups", to discover what they think, in order to contrive policies that will be popular; this is usually not regarded as genuine leadership
    Leadership has been described as the “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task". Other in-depth definitions of leadership have also emerged.-Theories:...

     by politicians who know what they are doing, and who know what their constituency wants from personal experience.
  • Populism
    Populism can be defined as an ideology, political philosophy, or type of discourse. Generally, a common theme compares "the people" against "the elite", and urges social and political system changes. It can also be defined as a rhetorical style employed by members of various political or social...

     is sometimes regarded as an intrinsically opportunist form of politics, catering to the "lowest common denominator". In that case, politicians advocate policies primarily on the basis that they think a lot of people will support them (and therefore useful to maintain or increase support), or that if a leader recommends them, people will follow because they believe in the leader, even regardless of whether the policies are consistent with principles.
  • Other analysts see opportunism as originating in perceptions of the relative magnitudes of risk
    Risk is the potential that a chosen action or activity will lead to a loss . The notion implies that a choice having an influence on the outcome exists . Potential losses themselves may also be called "risks"...

     associated with different policy alternatives. Here, it is argued that the larger a political organization grows and the more influence it has, the less likely it is, that it will pursue policies that could potentially result in the loss of the gains it has previously made. It would be more likely, that an organization will compromise its principles to some degree, in order to maintain its position, than to continue pursuing its principles regardless of the consequences. Or, at the very least, the greater the political influence obtained, the more pressure exists to compromise one's political principles
  • However, a more general source of political opportunism is simply the great urge to achieve political success, to be successful, where success is defined as attaining a position of power, authority and influence (which in turn makes it possible to enact one's own policy). A politics is in truth successful only if the principles it advocates are really put into practice by a large number of people, or a majority of the people, in other words if people are really persuaded by an argument and act accordingly. In a principled politics, wielding power is only a means to this end: to restrain or change the behavioural patterns of citizens in ways thought to be beneficial to society. In opportunist politics, however, wielding power has become an end in itself.

Dilemmas of political opportunism

To some extent, politics unavoidably involves dilemmas about whether to insist on one's own principles (and risk being isolated) or to adapt to a more widely-held opinion for the sake of working together. People may be very unwilling to take risks and respond to opportunities, or take risks and opportunities without much regard for their overall significance. Accordingly, most political situations involve at least some potential for opportunism.

Thus, there may not be any generally applicable rule or technique (a "philosopher's stone") that could be invoked in advance to prevent opportunism. At best, one could be aware of the possibility that opportunism could become a real problem, and take steps to minimize the risk. Generally, that risk is minimized if people ensure that they can always explain clearly the relationship between chosen means and ends vis-a-vis the basic principles that guide them, i.e. to understand exactly why they are doing things and what motivates them.

Sometimes it is argued that opportunist errors are preferable to sectarian or factional errors. Whatever his "sins" may be interpreted to be, it is argued, the political opportunist prioritizes gaining or maintaining influence among people, and therefore at least remains among majority opinion or "among the masses". In contrast, the sectarian or factionalist is likely to uphold his principles or beliefs regardless of any experience that might contradict them, and regardless of how many people support them; he attaches supreme importance to espousing his principles with an exaggerated belief in the power of ideas, no matter what others believe. This leads to political isolation and permits little experiential verification of the validity of political ideas. Sectarianism and opportunism might however also combine, to the extent that a sect believes that almost any trick is permissible to attract more members to the sect.

Since the majority could be quite wrong in regard to particular issues, however, adapting to that majority opinion on those issues might, in a specific context, be an even bigger error than "keeping one's principles pure". This is acknowledged in democratic theory to the extent that democracy is normally thought to involve the civil right of dissent
Dissent is a sentiment or philosophy of non-agreement or opposition to a prevailing idea or an entity...

 from majority opinion, and consequently also the civil right of a minority viewpoint to exist. It implies that the majority could be wrong, and that the minority could be right, something which could never be corrected efficiently, if minority viewpoints were simply silenced. Because in that case, the minority might not be able to become a majority, even if experience proved the minority correct. That is why it is especially important to evaluate criticisms of "opportunism" in context.
The tragedy of opportunist politics

The tragedy of opportunist politics is often that, by forsaking principles to make political gains, it becomes difficult or impossible to distinguish and evaluate political success and failure appropriately, and draw appropriate conclusions. Because for such an evaluation, it must be possible to specify clearly to what extent it has been possible to realize the agreed principles being advocated (how far a political movement has progressed toward realizing its aims). If it is not even clear anymore what those principles are, a failure may be hailed as a success, or a success decried as a failure, giving rise to intense disputes about their real significance.

If opportunist politics, in its urge for success, confuses what a political movement really stands for, or continually changes its story to suit the moment, any profound evaluation of its experiential record becomes impossible, and the past can be re-interpreted in any number of ways to suit the political purposes of the present or those of the future. In turn, that undermines the possibility of cumulative and collective learning
Learning is acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information. The ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals and some machines. Progress over time tends to follow learning curves.Human learning...

 from political experience in a truthful way. In that case, the errors and problems of the past are more likely to be repeated. Normally one would say that "if a course of action doesn't work, try something else", but if it is no longer even clear what worked and what didn't in the past, or they are mixed up with each other, current political activity may keep reproducing the problematic patterns and traditions, the essence of which the political actors are only dimly aware of.

It becomes difficult or impossible to explain why a political policy was really opted for and followed, or what can justify it, or why what was done, was done. Political appraisals begin to look arbitrary, relativistic and subjective. And that promotes a growing discrepancy between the motives political actors said they had, and their real motives - which breeds cynicism
Cynicism , in its original form, refers to the beliefs of an ancient school of Greek philosophers known as the Cynics . Their philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and...

, loss of purpose, lack of accountability
Accountability is a concept in ethics and governance with several meanings. It is often used synonymously with such concepts as responsibility, answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and other terms associated with the expectation of account-giving...

 and the loss of the aspiration to work for political ideals.

According to a popular saying, "there is no such thing as an honest politician" (politicians will accentuate certain truths at the expense of other truths), but there is such a thing as a "principled" politician working within clearly defined moral boundaries, which rule out doing "just anything". A politician may be a "clever talker" who can justify anything, but if there is a big discrepancy between the talk and what is actually being done, people are usually unlikely to believe it for very long. They know that things "do not match up", even if they do not know exactly why, and may become indifferent to whatever is being said.

Continual political opportunism ultimately reduces the scope of politics to a visionless realpolitik
Realpolitik refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic or ethical premises...

 or a barren pragmatism
Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition centered on the linking of practice and theory. It describes a process where theory is extracted from practice, and applied back to practice to form what is called intelligent practice...

 which may only function to maintain the status quo
Status quo
Statu quo, a commonly used form of the original Latin "statu quo" – literally "the state in which" – is a Latin term meaning the current or existing state of affairs. To maintain the status quo is to keep the things the way they presently are...

, and in which people deceive themselves about their own motivations and those of others. This makes life even more difficult for politicians, in their attempt to persuade people to work together for common goals. According to journalist Adam Nagourney
Adam Nagourney
Adam Nagourney is an American journalist covering U.S. politics for The New York Times.-Biography:...

, "Many Americans are more likely to assume that anyone they read or see on
television has a political bias." (New York Times, 18 June 2010). Yet what that bias is, might not be obvious anymore.

Economic opportunism

There exists no agreed general, scientific definition or theory of economic opportunism; the literature usually considers only specific cases and contexts. There is also no agreement about why this is so. Oliver E. Williamson
Oliver E. Williamson
Oliver Eaton Williamson is an American economist, professor at the University of California, Berkeley and recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences....

Market trade supplies no universal morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

 of its own, except the law of contract
A contract is an agreement entered into by two parties or more with the intention of creating a legal obligation, which may have elements in writing. Contracts can be made orally. The remedy for breach of contract can be "damages" or compensation of money. In equity, the remedy can be specific...

 and basic practical requirements to settle transactions, while at the same time legal rules, however precise in their formulation, cannot control every last 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.
  • Economists frequently cannot even agree on the basic principles of the functioning of economic life, and consequently what constitutes a deviation from those principles is in dispute.
  • Market trade is compatible with a great variety of moral norms, religions and political systems, and indeed supporters of the free market
    Free market
    A free market is a competitive market where prices are determined by supply and demand. However, the term is also commonly used for markets in which economic intervention and regulation by the state is limited to tax collection, and enforcement of private ownership and contracts...

     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.
  • Economic action therefore involves a great variety of motives, some more honorable than others.
  • It is not feasible to outlaw many forms of economic opportunism, because any such law could not be effectively enforced, or, such laws would conflict with the civil rights
    Civil rights
    Civil and political rights are a class of rights that protect individuals' freedom from unwarranted infringement by governments and private organizations, and ensure one's ability to participate in the civil and political life of the state without discrimination or repression.Civil rights include...

     or trading rights of citizens.
  • It is often disputed in economics whether the opportunist, as a type of "entrepreneur", creates more opportunities for everybody by what he does, or whether the opportunist is a pest with a harmful effect on economic life.

Adam Smith
Adam Smith
Adam Smith was a Scottish social philosopher and a pioneer of political economy. One of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith is the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations...

 famously wrote in The Wealth of Nations that:
If that Smithian view is accepted, then it is difficult to establish that "taking selfish advantage of an economic situation" can in any way be considered "opportunist", because it does not transgress any moral principle or principle of trade. Indeed, the pursuit of self-interest is in this view beneficial for all, it is exactly what makes the market tick. Furthermore, it is in the interest of market actors to conduct their affairs properly, because if their trading reputation is destroyed, they will be out of business. If it is believed that markets gravitate spontaneously to an equilibrium
Economic equilibrium
In economics, economic equilibrium is a state of the world where economic forces are balanced and in the absence of external influences the values of economic variables will not change. It is the point at which quantity demanded and quantity supplied are equal...

 state, so that price-levels ensure that everybody gets what they want, how can there be any "opportunism"?

At best one could draw a subtle distinction between "selfishness" and "self-interest". "Selfishness" would then denote a specific type of self-interest which violates a principle of trade (or some other principle) in a way that is illegitimate, unfair, unjust in some sense (such as unfair trade, negligence
Negligence is a failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances. The area of tort law known as negligence involves harm caused by carelessness, not intentional harm.According to Jay M...

 or unfair competition
Unfair competition
Unfair competition in a sense means that the competitors compete on unequal terms, because favourable or disadvantageous conditions are applied to some competitors but not to others; or that the actions of some competitors actively harm the position of others with respect to their ability to...

). Adam Smith does not rule out that possibility, acknowledging implicitly that the self-interest and the interest of society may not always be compatible, only "frequently". Opportunism could then be thought of as an aberration or "grey area" that sometimes occurs in normal trading activity.

People would not normally trade, if they did not expect to gain something by it; the fact that they do trade, rather than simply rob each other, 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. The entitlement to make some economic gains is then considered to be illegitimate, in some way.

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
Greed is an excessive desire to possess wealth, goods, or abstract things of value with the intention to keep it for one's self. Greed is inappropriate expectation...

 is frequently mentioned as a primary motive for economic opportunism. Even so, people might just try to get the most out of a situation for themselves with the least effort they can get away with, disregarding the interests of others who also have a stake in the situation (see stakeholder).

What exactly the rightful or correct obligations of trading parties are to each other, can be open to interpretation "in good faith" (bona fide
Bona Fide
Bona Fide is a studio album from rock band Wishbone Ash. It is the first studio album in six years and is the only studio album to feature guitarist Ben Granfelt...

) by those trading parties or other parties. It may depend on the "understanding" that exists in a business situation. This creates the possibility that, even although - strictly speaking, or formally - everything is done "within the law", economic actors nevertheless do not (or not fully) honour their trading obligations in some way, for selfish motives, and therefore commit what amounts to deceit, trickery or cheating, by utilizing a somewhat different "interpretation", "intention", "expectation" or "understanding". Therefore there is always much controversy about what these obligations really are, in the fine detail - it may be that "one man's opportunism is another man's opportunity".

At issue here is, what one might legitimately expect a trading party to understand or comply with in a business deal, i.e. how the meaning of it is construed, which can differ between trading parties with a different stake or interest in the deal, and which might itself change in the course of negotiations. Whether a trading activity is viewed as "opportunist" might just depend on one's moral viewpoint or informal expectation, because "there is no law against it". For this reason, institutional economics
Institutional economics
Institutional economics focuses on understanding the role of the evolutionary process and the role of institutions in shaping economic behaviour. Its original focus lay in Thorstein Veblen's instinct-oriented dichotomy between technology on the one side and the "ceremonial" sphere of society on the...

 often evaluates economic opportunism in relation to those norms of acceptable human conduct which, although they may not be explicitly stated in legislation, are nevertheless implied by legislation or by jurisprudence
Jurisprudence is the theory and philosophy of law. Scholars of jurisprudence, or legal theorists , hope to obtain a deeper understanding of the nature of law, of legal reasoning, legal systems and of legal institutions...


Glenn R. Parker claims that the five most discussed examples of economic opportunism are:
  • adverse selection
    Adverse selection
    Adverse selection, anti-selection, or negative selection is a term used in economics, insurance, statistics, and risk management. It refers to a market process in which "bad" results occur when buyers and sellers have asymmetric information : the "bad" products or services are more likely to be...

  • moral hazard
    Moral hazard
    In economic theory, moral hazard refers to a situation in which a party makes a decision about how much risk to take, while another party bears the costs if things go badly, and the party insulated from risk behaves differently from how it would if it were fully exposed to the risk.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.
  • 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
    Efficiency wages
    In labor economics, the efficiency wage hypothesis argues that wages, at least in some markets, are determined by more than simply supply and demand. Specifically, it points to the incentive for managers to pay their employees more than the market-clearing wage in order to increase their...


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 which he chooses to take in practice.

However, others argue that this reflects a narrow view of economic opportunism, because there are actually far more ways in which economic actors can take selfish advantage of other economic actors, even if they do not violate the law.

Opportunism in game theory

In game theory
Game theory
Game theory is a mathematical method for analyzing calculated circumstances, such as in games, where a person’s success is based upon the choices of others...

, opportunism concerns the contradictory relationships between altruistic and self-interested behaviour, where the different kinds of common and sectional interests that exist in a situation are utilized or manipulated primarily with the motive of making 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
Compete can refer to:*Competition - the rivalry of two or more parties*Compete.com - a web traffic analysis company*Compete America - an industry trade group...

 and cooperate in different areas. Two classic cases discussed in game theory where opportunism is often involved are the free rider problem
Free rider problem
In economics, collective bargaining, psychology, and political science, a free rider is someone who consumes a resource without paying for it, or pays less than the full cost. The free rider problem is the question of how to limit free riding...

 and the prisoner's dilemma
Prisoner's dilemma
The prisoner’s dilemma is a canonical example of a game, analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interest to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W...


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).

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.

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’’ which 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
Good faith
In philosophy, the concept of Good faith—Latin bona fides “good faith”, bona fide “in good faith”—denotes sincere, honest intention or belief, regardless of the outcome of an action; the opposed concepts are bad faith, mala fides and perfidy...

, if that is not the case – particularly if the opportunist behaviour violates a shared perception of “what it means” to be part of the group, or to engage in the social contact. Questions may arise about what the real motives of the social opportunist are, or why he participates (see also spying). To the extent that the opportunist avoids such queries by representing his intentions other than they really are, he commits some type of deceit.

Groups, gatherings, associations or organizations which operate on the basis of voluntary or involuntary association, or in an atmosphere of mutual trust, may provide resources or contacts to their participants which:
  • are provided and shared only because of their cooperation, or being together
  • are 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.

In a study of opportunism in networking, Muhammad Zafar Yakub comments:


Marxist theory of opportunism

Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

 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 which they do not need themselves, or which are surplus to their own requirements, and which can therefore be appropriated by others for personal gain. This causes alienation
    Social alienation
    The term social alienation has many discipline-specific uses; Roberts notes how even within the social sciences, it “is used to refer both to a personal psychological state and to a type of social relationship”...

    , 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.
  • Although people necessarily have to cooperate to survive, the way in which they go about this is highly contradictory, and involves “character masks”, because there is also constant competition
    Competition is a contest between individuals, groups, animals, etc. for territory, a niche, or a location of resources. It arises whenever two and only two strive for a goal which cannot be shared. Competition occurs naturally between living organisms which co-exist in the same environment. For...

     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
    Level playing field
    A level playing field is a concept about fairness, not that each player has an equal chance to succeed, but that they all play by the same set of rules. A metaphorical playing field is said to be level if no external interference affects the ability of the players to compete fairly...

  • Capitalist society is itself founded on the exploitation
    This article discusses the term exploitation in the meaning of using something in an unjust or cruel manner.- As unjust benefit :In political economy, economics, and sociology, exploitation involves a persistent social relationship in which certain persons are being mistreated or unfairly used for...

     of the labour of others and on unequal exchange
    Unequal exchange
    Unequal exchange is a much disputed concept which is used primarily in Marxist economics, but also in ecological economics, to denote forms of exploitation hidden in or underwriting trade...

    . This is enabled by the ownership or control of assets, money and credit which are used by investors 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.
  • 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. 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
    Information asymmetry
    In economics and contract theory, information asymmetry deals with the study of decisions in transactions where one party has more or better information than the other. This creates an imbalance of power in transactions which can sometimes cause the transactions to go awry, a kind of market failure...

     is not simply a problem in trade, but occurs in every sphere of life, and thus some capitalize on the ignorance of others.
  • 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
    Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

    , 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."

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. In turn, that creates an total environment in which 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
Second International
The Second International , the original Socialist International, was an organization of socialist and labour parties formed in Paris on July 14, 1889. At the Paris meeting delegations from 20 countries participated...

, the German Social Democratic Party, voted in favour of the war credits necessary at the beginning of World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. 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
Working class
Working class is a term used in the social sciences and in ordinary conversation to describe those employed in lower tier jobs , often extending to those in unemployment or otherwise possessing below-average incomes...


Since that time, opportunism has been often defined by Marxists as a policy which puts special interests ahead of the interests of the working class However, this definition is not unproblematic, because it is always controversial what “the interests of the working class” really are, until the workers themselves say what they are. The Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...

 definition of opportunism in this context is "the policy or practice of making concessions to bourgeois elements of society", as "a stage in the implementation of Socialism or Communism", where an opportunist is "a socialist or communist who advocates the making of concessions to the bourgeoisie". The implication is that opportunist policies split the labour movement, by tying part of the working class to bourgeois interests.

Critics of the Marxian interpretation argue that the problem of undesirable forms of opportunism appears in any large population subject to a complex division of labour
Division of labour
Division of labour is the specialisation of cooperative labour in specific, circumscribed tasks and likeroles. Historically an increasingly complex division of labour is closely associated with the growth of total output and trade, the rise of capitalism, and of the complexity of industrialisation...

, or any industrialized society (including a socialist one), since - whatever the rhetorics - it is in practice unable to maintain a shared social ethic, and because it creates plenty scope for competitors to take advantage of each other in an unprincipled way. At best one could say, that some types of societies provide much better controls, or better checks and balances, to curb undesirable opportunist behaviour - they are better able to combat corruptive influences, or adopt organisational forms which encourage a better morality. This type of criticism suggests that problems of opportunism have to studied in their specificity in order to provide useful insight, and that generalizations about them (guided by moral biases) can be very misleading. It might explain why there exists no general theory of opportunist behaviour.

Spiritual opportunism

Spirituality can refer to an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.” Spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop...

 opportunism refers to the exploitation of spiritual ideas (or of the spirituality of others, or of spiritual authority
The word Authority is derived mainly from the Latin word auctoritas, meaning invention, advice, opinion, influence, or command. In English, the word 'authority' can be used to mean power given by the state or by academic knowledge of an area .-Authority in Philosophy:In...

) - 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 (see also spiritual abuse
Spiritual abuse
Spiritual abuse is a serious form of abuse which occurs when a person in a cult-religious authority or a person with a unique spiritual practice misleads and maltreats another person in the name of a deityor church or in the mystery of any spiritual concept...


Any human being has at least some kind of spiritual sense - developed through personal reflection, or undeveloped, but evident from lifestyle and communications - which defines the meta-meanings of human existence, the purpose of life, the meaning of the universe and one's own place in it, and so on. This may, or may not be expressed through the categories and concepts of a religion; it could be only assumed, rather than explicit. 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 may not be considered as consistent with the real intentions of the religious belief, or show lack of respect for the spiritual autonomy of others. The "good faith" of people is then taken advantage of, in ways which 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 which are 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 that the 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
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

, Islam
Islam . The most common are and .   : Arabic pronunciation varies regionally. The first vowel ranges from ~~. The second vowel ranges from ~~~...

, Hinduism
Hinduism is the predominant and indigenous religious tradition of the Indian Subcontinent. Hinduism is known to its followers as , amongst many other expressions...

 or Buddhism
Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha . The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th...

 sometimes complain that people (e.g. New Age
New Age
The New Age movement is a Western spiritual movement that developed in the second half of the 20th century. Its central precepts have been described as "drawing on both Eastern and Western spiritual and metaphysical traditions and then infusing them with influences from self-help and motivational...

 enthusiasts) seek out spiritual beliefs which only serve themselves, as a form of "spiritual opportunism". Such complaints are often highly controversial, insofar as 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 "formally" or "outwardly" subscribe to them).

Because spiritual beliefs are a highly personal matter in the first instance, and concern personal meanings, they are often difficult to criticize, because "they just are what they are". And insofar as they concern highly abstract, metaphysical principles, it is difficult to prove their inconsistency - even using the criterion of whether people "act according to their beliefs". People can always argue that the personal meaning they attach to something, or the personal associations they make, cannot be adequately expressed in the language of others. If accusations of spiritual opportunism are made, therefore, evidential proof depends greatly on what people are willing to reveal (or "confess") about themselves, in what they say and do.

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".

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 for which they were not truly intended, with self-interested motives.

Usually, legal opportunism is understood to occur legally, i.e. it is itself not explicitly a "crime" (a violation of the law, or an unlawful act), although 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
Rule of law
The rule of law, sometimes called supremacy of law, is a legal maxim that says that governmental decisions should be made by applying known principles or laws with minimal discretion in their application...

 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 that suits their own interest, but reject or disapprove of their application, when the rules don't suit their own interest (or if taking self-interested action would mean breaking the law). 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 (i.e. how exactly it applies in the given situation is not self-evident or obvious), where the chosen interpretation is precisely the one which favours one's self-interest. If a situation is governed by many different and possibly conflicting rules, some choices may be possible in deciding exactly which rule will be applied; the opportunist then picks the option which suits himself.

Since there are a great variety of ways in which the applicability of legal rules and procedures can be manipulated in dubious ways for selfish purposes, a general definition of legal opportunism (one which covers all cases) is exceptionally difficult. All of the types of opportunism mentioned in this article may appear in a specifically legal form. Legal opportunism can involve practices such as:
  • 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.
  • 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”, i.e. 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 which are not strictly illegal.
  • Trying to sway legal opinion about a case by using arguments or utterances which will appeal to one's audience, but which have substantively nothing to do with the case being judged.
  • "Cherry-picking" pieces of evidence, rules or precedents to construct a justification for the policy option that favour's one's own interest.

It should be noted, that in an adversarial system
Adversarial system
The adversarial system is a legal system where two advocates represent their parties' positions before an impartial person or group of people, usually a jury or judge, who attempt to determine the truth of the case...

 all kinds of tactics can be legitimately used by lawyers in a self-interested way to help them win their case, without being illegal. Therefore, to prove "legal opportunism" as a specific form of abuse of the legal process, for some selfish purpose, can be quite a challenge.

Normally, a modern system of law assumes, that citizens as legal subjects all have the same legal status before the law, and that the law is applied uniformly to all citizens in the same way, under the same circumstances. However,
  • There can always be differences about the interpretation of the exact meaning, purpose, intent and application of laws in particular situations.
  • Rules can be constructed which, although they are formally the same for everyone, in reality advantage some, and disadvantage others.
  • There may be new and novel situations, about which it is not clear how the law should apply, or which are legally not clearly defined.
  • The combination of different systems of rules can create unforeseen consequences, or uncertainty about how the rules should be applied, or about which rule ought to apply in a given case.
  • A legal rule, although enacted in a statute, may state or imply a principle which is impossible to enforce systematically for some reason, with the effect that people will "follow their own interpretation" in a self-interested way without being penalized for it.

All of these make possible an opportunist exploitation of legal frameworks by legal subjects, for self-interested motives, without necessarily violating any legal principle, although the intention of the law (the real purpose or aim which inspired a legal rule) is being negated.

See also

The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.