The other day I was talking with a friend who was telling me a particularly crazy story about a fundraising scheme gone horribly wrong. This story was actually recounted to me by two different people with slightly different versions, but the central theme is the same.

Here is the story.

Some of you may know the fundraiser called a “cow drop.” This requires a real live cow and a field that’s been divided into squares. Each square is sold to some charitable (and enterprising) soul who bets that the cow will “drop” in his square. The cow is released and the rest is a mellow organic kind of waiting game with the winner taking home a cash prize. At least, that’s what is supposed to happen.

In the case in question however, the field was a small paved parking lot in front of the local VFW. And the cow may have been a bull (this fact was in contention between the two tale tellers) but according to both, the beast was not only enormous but increasingly angry at being in a small noisy space with too many people. First s/he did “drop” albeit in way more than one square, but when a roar went up from the crowd, the animal became enraged and bolted — tearing through the fence and heading at full tilt through the crowd toward the local hospital.

Long story short, eventually, the police had to shoot the bull/cow to stop it. Not a good scene for the families attending what they expected to be a cute afternoon celebration. Not a great scene for the sponsoring organization which had to buy the bull/cow post-mortem and deal with the PR fall-out but, in general, not the worst that might have happened, thanks to kind fate.

There is a rule that applies here. It comes from Draper Kauffman’s Systems 1: Introduction to Systems Thinking and it is as follows: “high morality depends upon accurate prophecy.” In other words, sometimes it is in not thinking a thing all the way through that we risk negative outcomes. And if the worst does happen, you can bet every small aspect of our decision making will be called into question.

Naturally, this coin’s flipside is that if we always hesitate to tie down every conceivable detail, sometimes we would just never get anything done.

So there’s a balance that must be struck. We make decisions that have ethical implications every day — all of us do — and only sometimes stop to really question ourselves about them. That’s why we need to depend upon each other to pull our coat tails when something we are doing without deep reflection looks bad to the observer.

It’s not always easy though to say “Whoa! Hold up!” unless you are pretty sure that the cow is a bull, so the Nonprofit Ethicist stands ready to help you with this.

Are your concerns with what is going on around you valid or just a bit of misinterpretation or obsessiveness on your part? Write to the Ethicist now with your questions. He will answer you confidentially and quickly and if we print your query, we will eliminate any identifying information and run the copy by you first.