Opportunity Seized, Opportunity Missed. Engraving by Theodoor Galle, 1605.


General definition

Opportunism is the conscious policy and practice of taking selfish advantage of circumstances, with little regard for principles.[1] 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, transaction cost economics, game theory, ethics, psychology, sociology and politics.

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) 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 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 in France, and it entered the English language in the 1870s.[2]

In Latin, 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").

Portunes was originally the Roman god guarding keys, doors and livestock, who protected grainstores, later also the god of harbours who protected ships and seamen.[3]

Moral connotations of human opportunism

As a style of human behaviour, opportunism has the connotation of a lack of integrity, or doing something that is out of character (inconsistent). The underlying thought is that the price of the unrestrained pursuit of selfishness is behavioural inconsistency, 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 is supposed to have quipped:

"I would rather be an opportunist and float than go to the bottom with my principles around my neck" - Stanley Baldwin[4]

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 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, William Shakespeare 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 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.

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 (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 behaviour, and centres on the way people respond to risk and opportunity, and what kind of motivation and organizational culture is involved. Both the element of risk and opportunity play a role, 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, moral character, personal insight or self-awareness, personal flexibility and balance. It also depends on the ability to judge the consequences of different courses of action correctly. Strong emotions and desires may also play a role, and much may depend on how permissive a person, group or organization is (see permissive society). These factors influence the capacity to know "where to draw the line" appropriately, and regulate one's own behaviour so that it remains consistent. Much also depends on the beliefs people happen to have about themselves and the world they live in, and on the morale of an organization. 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 inside a prison 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 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, 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, "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, competition or war, 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 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 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 and the tragedy of the commons. In this case, opportunist behaviour may be facilitated especially if precise rules for how a resource should be distributed are lacking, or if it is unclear who really owns it, or if proper use cannot be enforced. 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. 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, 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 refers to an iron law of oligarchy). 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.

Use of the term in specific areas


Professional opportunism

In professional ethics, the concept of opportunism plays a role in defining criteria for professional integrity.[5] 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 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 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.

Physical science

Evolutionary opportunism

In the theory of evolution, "evolutionary opportunism" refers to a specific pattern of development in the history of a species. The behaviour, culture or body part of 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.[6]

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, an opportunist organism is generally defined as a species which can live and thrive in variable environmental conditions, and sustain itself from various 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, opportunism refers to the ability of a normally non-pathogenic microorganism to act as a pathogen in certain circumstances. Opportunist micro-organisms (such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa) are ones which, when they invade the host organism, can cause infection in the host organism, but cause real disease only if the natural defenses, resistance or immune system of the host organism are lowered (see opportunistic infection).

In macrobiology, opportunist behaviour by an organism generally means that it is able to seize and use diverse opportunities in its environment to survive and grow. If one single opportunity or need occurs, the organism can "improvise" a response to it with whatever resources it has available, even if what it can do is not the best possible strategy.

In the biological disciplines, opportunistic behavior is studied in fields such as evolutionary biology, ecology, epidemiology, and etiology, where moral or judgmental overtones do not apply (see also opportunistic pathogens, opportunistic predation, phoresis, and parasitism).

Sexual opportunism

Sexual opportunism is the selfish pursuit of sexual opportunities for their own sake when they arise, often with the negative moral connotation that in some way it ‘’takes advantage’’ of others, or ‘’makes use’’ of, or ‘’exploits’’, other persons for sexual purposes. Sexual opportunism is sometimes also defined as the use of sexual favours for selfish purposes quite unrelated to the sexual activity, in which case taking a sexual opportunity is merely the means to achieve a quite different purpose, for example to advance one's career or obtain status or money. 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). 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 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 and sex tourism).
  • 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 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 or the observable propensity to engage in casual sex, 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 or hypersexuality 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.

Social science

Political opportunism

The term "opportunism" is often used in politics and political science, and by activists campaigning for a cause. The political philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli as described in The Prince is often regarded as a classic manual of opportunist scheming, and indeed a "Machiavellian" is nowadays defined as "a cunning, amoral, and opportunist person, especially a politician".[8] 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 remarked that "One man's opportunism is another man's statesmanship".[7] 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, 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".[8]
  • 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 to serve his purpose, capitalizing on human gullibility or ignorance.
  • 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").

"We shall need compromises in the days ahead, to be sure. But these will be, or should be, compromises of issues, not principles. We can compromise our political positions, but not ourselves. We can resolve the clash of interests without conceding our ideals. And even the necessity for the right kind of compromise does not eliminate the need for those idealists and reformers who keep our compromises moving ahead, who prevent all political situations from meeting the description supplied by Shaw: "smirched with compromise, rotted with opportunism, mildewed by expedience, stretched out of shape with wirepulling and putrefied with permeation... Compromise need not mean cowardice.” - John F. Kennedy[9]

The role of principles

The term "political opportunism" is often used in a pejorative 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 or factionalism, 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
Caricature chastising the Labour Party for how they changed once they began getting some power in the British Government…
Miss LIBERAL PARTY: "That rough person seems to think he knows you."
LABOUR STATESMAN "Oh, no doubt, m'lady, before one was a member of the governing classes one could know all sorts of queer people, but now, as you know, one has to be careful."

Political integrity 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 (1971, p. 76), community organizer Saul Alinsky 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 and secrecy 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 writes:

"Power corrupts, but its real corruption is among those who wait upon it, seeking place, jostling with rivals, nursing jealousies, forming expedient cabals, flaunting preferment, crowing at the humiliation of a demoted favourite." - John Keegan, The mask of command. Penguin edition, 1988, p. 89.

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 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 by politicians who know what they are doing, and who know what their constituency wants from personal experience.
  • Populism 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 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[10]
  • 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 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 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, loss of purpose, lack of accountability 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 or a barren pragmatism which may only function to maintain the status quo, 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, "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 comments:

"Although there is growing agreement that bounded rationality is the appropriate cognitive assumption for describing economic organization, there is less agreement on how the self-interestedness of economic actors should be described. Transaction cost economics has proposed that economic agents be described as opportunistic where this contemplates self-interest seeking with guile. That has turned out to be a controversial formulation."[11]

Market trade supplies no universal morality of its own, except the law of contract and basic practical requirements to settle transactions, while at the same time legal rules, however precise in their formulation, cannot control every 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.[12]

  • 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 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 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 famously wrote in The Wealth of Nations that:

"Every individual intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his original intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectively than when he really intends to promote it."

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 state, so that price-levels ensure that everybody gets what they want, how can there be any "opportunism"?[13]

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 or unfair competition). 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 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) by those trading parties or other parties. It may depend on the "understanding" that exists in a business situation.[14] 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.[15] 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 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.

Glenn R. Parker[16] claims that the five most discussed examples of economic opportunism are:

  • adverse selection
  • moral hazard
  • last-period exploitation, when it is known that competitors or stakeholders are not able to respond to a suitably timed selfish action.
  • reneging (in contracts), where a contractual agreement, promise, intention or understanding of a deal is not fully honoured by a party to the contract, for selfish motives, because it is possible "to get away with it" and/or because there is an incentive to do so.[17]
  • shirking, involving some kind of negligence, or failure to acquit oneself of a duty (or a responsibility) previous agreed or implied (see also efficiency wages).

In transaction cost economics, opportunism means self-interest seeking with guile, involving some kind of deliberate deceit and the absence of moral restraint. It could involve deliberately withholding or distorting important business information, shirking (doing less work than agreed), or failing to fulfill formal or informal promises and obligations. It occurs in trading activities especially where rules and sanctions are lacking, and where the opportunist actor has great power to influence an outcome by the attitude 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.[18]

Opportunism in game theory

In game theory, opportunism concerns the contradictory relationships between altruistic and self-interested behaviour, where the different kinds of common and sectional interests 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 and cooperate in different areas. Two classic cases discussed in game theory where opportunism is often involved are the free rider problem and the prisoner's dilemma.

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, 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:

"Even though there is no shortage of studies and the facts of matter on the subject, the problem with studying the opportunism is rather the proliferation of explanations on the subject construct with little cross fertilization. The study of competition and cooperation is multifaceted and multidisciplinary, including disciplines from economics, political science, sociology, organization science, population ecology, business strategy etc. (...) So far, there has been little effort to integrate these multiple views and to look for the underlying theoretical constructs that could tie these eclectic explanations together. This explains why the field still lacks a systematic and integrated explanation of opportunistic behavior in strategic networks."[19]


Marxist theory of opportunism

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

  • Capitalist society constantly reorganizes the structure of human cooperation, so that, more and more, people produce things 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, 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.[20]
  • 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 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.[21]
  • Capitalist society is itself founded on the exploitation of the labour of others and on unequal exchange. This is enabled by the ownership or control of assets, money and credit 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.[22]
  • 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.[23] While it formally regards all citizens as equal and free, in reality people are very unequally positioned with respect to their social status, power, knowledge and wealth, and consequently also their freedoms. Information asymmetry is not simply a problem in trade, but occurs in every sphere of life, and thus some capitalize on the ignorance of others.[24]
  • Capitalist society is of itself aimless and amorphous with regard to the purposes of human life, lacking any shared, consensual ethic. Any candidate for such an ethic, such as a religion, is only as influential as the power that exists to assert it, but even so its norms are constantly contradicted in practice. Capitalism makes human development conditional on the unbridled pursuit of self-enrichment. This promotes personal qualities such as egoism and selfishness, where people try to "privatize the gains and socialize the losses."[25]

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.[26] 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, the German Social Democratic Party, voted in favour of the war credits necessary at the beginning of World War I. 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.[27]

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[28] 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 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, 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.

Law & Religion

Spiritual opportunism

Spiritual opportunism refers to the exploitation of spiritual ideas (or of the spirituality of others, or of spiritual authority) - for personal gain, partisan interests or selfish motives. Usually the implication is that doing so is unprincipled in some way, although it may cause no harm and involve no abuse (see also spiritual abuse).

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[29] 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, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism sometimes complain that people (e.g. New Age 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 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).[30] 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 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


  1. ^ http://www.thefreedictionary.com/opportunism
  2. ^ According to the Grand Larousse encyclopédique, opportunism was the name given to the cautious reformism and nationalism of French Republicans, who advocated moderate policies to consolidate the French Third Republic after the eviction of the monarchists. The French Opportunists did not call themselves by this name; rather, the term was used by French radicals to describe centrist and centre-left politics in the country. Possibly, the term was originally popularized by Victor Henri Rochefort, Marquis de Rochefort-Luçay, who used it in his criticisms of Léon Gambetta.
  3. ^ In the Roman empire, the Roman god Portunes gradually became identified with the Greek god Palaemon (see Melicertes)
  4. ^ cited in Daniel Singer, Is Socialism Doomed? The Meaning of Mitterrand. Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 189.
  5. ^ Chester Barnard has a chapter on the "theory of opportunism" in his classic work Functions of the executive (Harvard University Press reprint, 2005).
  6. ^ Michael Ruse, The Oxford handbook of philosophy of biology. Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 199.
  7. ^ Playboy magazine, February 1973 issue. Quoted in The cynic's lexicon: a dictionary of amoral advice by Jonathon Green (Routledge 1984), p. 77. The interviewer, Michael Laurence, asked "Aren’t you saying that there’s been a large element of political opportunism in Nixon’s reversals?" and Friedman replied: "One man’s opportunism is another’s statesmanship. There is a very delicate balance between the two in our society. Good politics is what we should demand from our politicians—to a degree. We don’t want our leaders to charge off in every direction trying to satisfy the latest public whim, but neither do we want them to completely ignore the will of the people. I think Nixon acted properly. The real problem is educating the public, and there he was unsuccessful."[1] The interview is reprinted in Milton Friedman, There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1975 and in: Milton Friedman, Bright Promises, Dismal Performance: An Economist’s Protest. (ed. William R. Allen). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.
  8. ^ A famous text by Fidel Castro is titled "History will absolve me". More recently, Tony Blair and George W. Bush defended the invasion of Iraq to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein stating that history would prove that this was the right thing to do. See: Roland Watson, "Bush echoes Blair with 'history will prove me right'", The Times (London), 31 July 2003.[2]
  9. ^ Inaugural speech of the thirty-fifth President of the United States, Washington, D.C., January 20, 1961, reprinted in Profiles in Courage (1961, reprinted Harper/Collins, 2006)
  10. ^ See Robert Michels, Political Parties. New York: Dover, 1959, chapter 3, and Ernest Mandel, "What is the bureaucracy?", in: Tariq Ali (ed.), The Stalinist Legacy. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1984, p. 61-62).
  11. ^ Oliver E. Williamson, "Opportunism and its critics", in: Managerial and decision economics", Vol. 14, 1993, p. 97). A criticism of Williamson is provided in Geoffrey M. Hodgson, "Opportunism is not the only reason why firms exist: why an explanatory emphasis on opportunism may mislead management strategy." In: Industrial and Corporate Change, Volume 13, Number 2, pp. 401–418.[3]
  12. ^ Chao C. Chen, Mike W. Peng, Patrick A. Saparito, "Individualism, Collectivism, and Opportunism: A Cultural Perspective on Transaction Cost Economics". In: Journal of Management, Vol. 28 No. 4, 2002, pp. 567–583.[4]
  13. ^ See: Charles W. L. Hill, "Cooperation, Opportunism and the Invisible Hand: Implications for transaction cost theory", in: Academy of Management Review, Vol. 15 No. 3, 1990, p. 500-513).
  14. ^ Mitchel Abolafia, Making markets: opportunism and restraint on Wall Street. Harvard University Press, 2001.
  15. ^ See e.g. Ravi S. Achrol and Gregory T. Gundlach, "Legal and social safeguards against opportunism in exchange." Journal of Retailing, Volume 75, Issue 1, Spring 1999, Pages 107-124.
  16. ^ In his book Self-policing in politics: the political economy of reputational controls on politicians (Princeton University Press, 2004, p.21).
  17. ^ See e.g. G. Richard Shell, "Opportunism and trust in the Negotiation of Commercial Contracts: Toward a New Cause of Action." Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 44, March 1991, pp. 221-282.
  18. ^ See further Kuntara Pukthuanthong and Harry J. Turtle, "Legal Opportunism, Litigation Risk, and IPO Underpricing", January 2009 [5]; Paul J. Zak (ed.), Moral markets: the critical role of values in the economy. Princeton University Press, 2008).
  19. ^ Muhammad Zafar Yakub, "Antecedents, consequences and control of opportunistic behavior in strategic networks", Journal of Business & Economics Research, Vol. 7 No. 2, February 2009, p. 15)
  20. ^ See Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 1844. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959.
  21. ^ See Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1981).
  22. ^ See Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1976.
  23. ^ See e.g. Heide Gerstenberger, Impersonal Power: History and theory of the bourgeois state. Haymarket Books, 2009.
  24. ^ See: Samuel Bowles, Richard Edwards and Frank Roosevelt, Understanding Capitalism: Competition, Command and Change. Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2005).
  25. ^ See e.g. Psychology of the Private Individual: Critique of Bourgeois Consciousness. Gegenstandpunkt, 2009 [6]
  26. ^ Ernest Mandel, "Marx, Engels en het probleem van de zogenaamde ‘dubbele moraal’", in: Veelzijdig marxisme, acta van het colloqium “De actualiteit van Karl Marx” - in opdracht van het Instituut voor Marxistische Studies, 1983
  27. ^ See e.g. V.I. Lenin, "Opportunism, and the Collapse of the Second International", 1915. , V.I Lenin
  28. ^ See e.g. Elif Çağlı, "A Dangerous Tendency: Opportunism"
  29. ^ See e.g. Robert M. Price, Top Secret: The Truth Behind Today’s Pop Mysticisms. Prometheus Books, 2008
  30. ^ Joanna Brylak, "Legal awareness and access to law". University of Warsaw, c. 2007, p. 5. [7]

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