If we couldn't trust each other, our lives would be very different. We trust strangers not to harm us, we trust our friends to take car...
The Mole Agent, now available on streaming services, is a deftly charming documentary about a private investigator hired to find out whether elder abuse is happening at a nursing home in Chile. Directed by Maite Alberdi, the film features an elderly gentleman hired to become a resident of the home and observe events first-hand. Sergio is a recent widower in his eighties who applies for the job and takes it on with courtliness and grace.
The film is a poignant picture of life in the nursing home. There are residents without families to visit them and residents whose families never visit. There are residents with fading or faded physical and mental capacities. There are residents who pilfer little things that seem enticing.
Most residents are women and they are understandably excited by the presence of a gallant man in their mix. Though daily existence is generally marked by boredom, there are moments of sadness and death interspersed with moments of dancing and joy.
Yet deception is at the heart of The Mole Agent. When Sergio enters the home, he is introduced as a new resident. But he has come to the home as a spy, not to live out his remaining days. Sometimes, he is not very good at concealing his observations. Sometimes he violates the privacy of other residents. Most importantly, his conduct encourages others to rely on him as a friend and trust him with their affections.
The deception is well intentioned, as Sergio has been hired to try to find out whether staff are mistreating residents. Nonetheless, it raises philosophical questions about trust beyond the straightforward question of whether lies can ever be justified by good intentions.
Trust involves the creation of expectations over time. As these expectations develop, we come to rely on each other. But this mutual reliance carries the risk of disappointment if our expectations are not well-grounded. When trust is not warranted, Annette Baier argues in her classic essay “Trust and Antitrust,” the appropriate response is not just disappointment, but a sense of betrayal.
Not everything Sergio does betrays others' expectations of him, and his revelations about the nursing home respect its residents. What he ultimately reveals is the kindness of the home’s staff—as well as the failures of families to maintain connections with their loved ones. Even after he leaves, Sergio continues to come back to visit the friends he made while he was at the home. In this respect, he does not completely violate the trust others place in him.
Nevertheless, Sergio’s presence in the nursing home is a violation of trust. As a mole, pretending to be someone who will continue to be an ongoing part of the other residents' lives, he gains access to private spaces under false pretences. The emotional attachments he subsequently develops are built on this deception and come with the added risk that he will be meaningful to his companions in a way that they are not meaningful to him. In this way, their trust in Sergio is not warranted. By entering the home under false pretences, he treats others as mere means to an end and not as fully informed agents in themselves.
Nursing homes are especially risky contexts for trust. Residents are physically dependent on others for care. With diminishing or fluctuating cognitive capacities, they may be unable to assess whether others are trustworthy. Expectations may be fragile; residents decline or die, and staff turnover is high. Small pleasures may be especially meaningful—and the disappointment felt more keenly if they turn out to be hollow. Given these enormous risks, it is especially troubling when nursing homes become contexts in which betrayals of trust occur.
The Mole Agent was made before Covid revealed the truly dire situation in nursing homes across the globe. About 40% of U.S. deaths have been linked to nursing homes; the figures worldwide are similarly devastating. Surveillance techniques used in nursing homes to monitor residents for risks of falls and wandering outside have drawn critical attention for violation of patient dignity and for the likelihood that they contribute to custodial maintenance rather than humane care. Recent research at Stanford is exploring whether robots may help nursing homes deliver care more safely—and, not incidentally, more cheaply too. Covid, surveillance, and robots all raise broader questions about whether we can trust nursing homes to serve the best interests of their residents.
The nursing home in The Mole Agent harks back to an apparently happier, pre-pandemic world. But the small-scale deception at its premise raises an important question: what should we be doing to gather the information we need and make the social changes that could prevent the tragedies that are ongoing for nursing home residents and their families today? Are these circumstances so serious that deception like The Mole Agent is permissible? Perhaps—but if so, we should be especially careful to ensure that these methods are in the interests of residents rather than designed for cost control or convenience.
I have not been blogging much lately. Sheltering at home and watching films on streaming services is much less fun than actually going to theaters. I’ll be watching Sundance festival films this year from my laptop without the buzz of audiences and the discovery of films like The Mole Agent (which I saw at Sundance 2020). But I’m realizing that I need to make do with what I have, hope for what will come, and that philosophy matters now more than ever.