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The purpose is to convey the fact that doing what is legally acceptable and doing what is morally or ethically correct are not always compatible.
The narrator finds himself in the situation of looking like a cowardly fool in front of the Burmese if he does not shoot the elephant, but his conscience is weighing on him because he realizes that the elephant no longer poses a threat. Because the Burmese despise the British for their presence, the narrator feels the need to go against his conscience and shoot the elephant to save face.
After seeing the dead Burmese man that had been trampled by the elephant, his conscience is overcome with guilt. He realizes that like the dead man, the elephant was crucified, as well. While acting within legal limits, he realizes that it was not an ethical choice.
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