What is Existential Opportunism?

Existential opportunism is essentially thinking and behaving in an opportunistic way in order to secure one’s own existence. However, to better understand this abstract concept, it is useful to look at the two members of the word combination separately.

The term ‘existential’ obviously refers to existence, in the case of living beings, to life itself, which involves activities aimed at securing survival or maintaining livelihood. Yet, for beings with higher intelligence, such as Homo sapiens (Latin for ‘wise human’ or ‘clever human’), it can also refer to thinking about existence as well as the desire for fulfillment in life, including personal happiness, professional advancement, or even success in professional sports.

Opportunism in itself means that one tries to take advantage of chances that are proactively sought or even spontaneously arising. In fact, this may include any kind of behavior, regardless of the impact it has on others, as long as it involves an intent to take advantage of opportunities in general. Such an essentially harmless activity could be, for example, when booking your cinema tickets as early as possible in the hope of getting the best seats, or trying to find alternative routes to avoid traffic jams. However, due to cultural reasons, the word ‘opportunism’ is usually used in a pejorative, negative sense in today’s vernacular, meaning a person who acts in an unprincipled, unscrupulous or compromising manner for the benefit of the moment, i.e. for selfish gain.

Even though opportunism is not necessarily a negative concept in itself, existential opportunism can be said to be so, in the sense that it generally involves seeking to advance one’s own interests at the expense of others, without regard for the disadvantage or harm caused to others or, indirectly, to the community or the larger society as a whole. While in nature this is considered normal and perfectly fine, in a civilized society of intelligent beings it is not, or should not be considered normal at all. Yet existential opportunism is a daily feature of our lives – just think of how some people stomp on each other on Black Fridays to get a cheap product, or what politicians and their parties will sometimes do to acquire more votes.

The cutthroat rivalry between political parties is in fact a manifestation of a collective form of existential opportunism, similar to the fierce competition between corporations, or even to tribal warfare, the struggles of different nations at each other’s expense and the power games of world-powers. This works in a similar way to the phenomenon’s individual counterpart, except that it is not individuals, but smaller or larger groups of individuals who seek to impose their will on other groups, communities or societies. Thus, nationalism, which serves as one of the most typical examples, is also characterized by the fact that it does not put the interests of a single person, but of a single people or nation before the interests of everyone else.

What this essentially means is that our societies are still governed by the law of the jungle, which is fundamentally at odds with the requirements of a truly civilized society. For in such, basic livelihood and well-being cannot be the object of impertinence, ambition, unscrupulousness or even luck, as it must be everyone’s due, otherwise their human dignity may be seriously compromised. In a socio-economic-political environment where existential opportunism prevails, insecurity, living from one day to the next, vulnerability, hopelessness and humiliation are ever-present, as well as the stress and tension that this causes. Consequently, it is not an exaggeration to say that we can thank most of the pain, suffering and deprivation in the world today to each other – rather than to chance, fate or any other supernatural force -, and therefore much of it is unnecessary and avoidable.

What is perhaps most striking about existential opportunism is that in communities that can be described as at least minimally civilized, it is not typically favored by the majority of people, but is almost always imposed on the rest by the minority that dominates them. (The predisposition or readiness to do so, however, may vary from person to person, depending on individual aptitudes and environmental influences, as well as the given cultural context.) This has always been the case in history, whether we have been ruled by pharaohs, kings, aristocrats, the church, the military, or even big business and billionaires. That is, those who have never been reluctant to subdue and exploit people or even nature without limits.

In this seemingly civilized social environment, expressly or tacitly, social Darwinism is still the accepted norm, holding that humans and their communities are subject to the laws of natural selection in exactly the same way as animals and plants, as Charles Darwin observed in the 19th century in his seminal theory of evolution. Proponents of social Darwinism say or believe that the weak will eventually fall and their culture will disappear, while the strong will gain power and cultural influence over them. For them, it is perfectly natural that people’s lives in society are a constant struggle for existence, the main goal and rule of which is the ‘survival of the fittest’.

Nevertheless, we must see that as long as existential opportunism is the dominant guiding principle in our societies, they will never be truly civilized. However, this does not necessarily have to be the case, because our duty as intelligent beings with an evolved consciousness is not to imitate nature in every way, but to ensure a balance within civilization and with nature. Moreover, in the long run, we cannot possibly afford to be existentially opportunistic with the latter, as such behavior will soon exhaust and destroy the resources of our planet in such a way that it will no longer be able to sustain a large human population.

Once the members of an intelligent species (in our case, humanity) become part of a particular ecosystem – be it a small area, a forest, a village, a city or the whole planet –, things no longer happen in their natural way, as determined by Mother Nature alone. This is precisely because, intentionally or not, we are inevitably interfering with the processes of nature, and this will become more so as the scientific and technological capabilities of our civilization become more advanced, with a parallel increase (at least for a certain period) in population and in the demands on our environment. However, if existential opportunism is ‘played’ by an organism that can radically transform its environment, this can have catastrophic consequences for the ecosystem, because natural selection is always about the survival of the given individual or species, regardless of its environment. In other words, if we humans irresponsibly cut down trees, destroy flora and fauna, or pollute the soil, water and air for our own immediate benefit, it means that we are destroying our very own habitat.

Albeit it is true that the tendency for existential opportunism is more or less there in all of us, if we want to live in a truly civilized way, we must do everything we can to stop it being the dominant guiding principle in our lives and societies. This can be achieved by moving as quickly as possible to collective consciousness, from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity. Since ‘herd mentality’ or the automatic cohesiveness of relatively homogeneous communities is no longer sufficient to overcome common problems, people must, in their own well-understood interest, obey the rules of common sense, treat each other and their environment fairly, and cooperate and collaborate, recognizing and accepting interdependence, always bearing in mind the principle of mutuality.