Orwell’s service in the British Empire places his reasoned principles and his basic intuitions in constant conflict. He recognizes that the empire is tyrannical and abusive, yet he is unable to overcome his visceral contempt for the local villagers who mistreat him. The decisions Orwell makes when confronted with the rogue elephant encapsulate these tensions between his different principles. Orwell could have followed his more humane, ethical impulses and chosen to spare the elephant. However, in the same way that his resentment of the villagers compromises his principled objection to the British Raj, Orwell ends up compromising his humane impulses and killing the elephant because he fears humiliation. His motivation to do so is nothing more than his visceral (and racist) conviction that it would be improper for him to back down in front of the Burmese.
At the end of the story, Orwell describes the debate surrounding his choice to kill the elephant. The arguments his colleagues offer for and against the act are largely legal, but this legal justification is clearly a secondary concern for Orwell. It is only a fortunate coincidence that his actions were legally justified. Ethical principles did not factor heavily in his decision-making process: his real motivation was simply to “avoid looking a fool.”
Principles Quotes in Shooting an Elephant
With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.
And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant.
It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him.
And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.