As I understand it, the objectivist position on volition is that (1) man does have free will, and(but?) (2) the choice to focus is the basic volitional choice. My question is this: is the choise to focus the only volitional choice?
That is, once we have chosen to focus, are there other choices we can make that are also volitional, or are all of our other "choices" (or what appear to us to be choices) really determined by the previous choice to focus?
I have heard objectivists that I respect make arguments that sound to me like they are endorsing the latter view. For example, I have heard it argued that "it is impossible for [so and so] to chose at this moment to [do such and such]." Sure, the argument continues, they may, through a series of choices to not focus get to the point where their character is such that they could chose to do such and such, but that choice is not open to them now--indeed the only choice open to them is to focus or not.
As another example, take this quote from an answer* to another question in this forum:
The notion seems to be that we go through life making millions of descrete choices to focus or not, and that "somehow" these choices to focus deterministically fill in the rest--they determine our other "choices" (which aren't really choices), create our chracter, and (ultimately) make us who we are. The problem is that this does not accord with our experiences in reality: We validate volition by introspecting and noticing the fact that we can chose to do things volitionally. However, much of this introspective evidence is evidence of us making choices other than the choice to focus. We notice, for example, that we can choose to raise our arm or lower it as we please--if such choices are not really volitional, then how do they serve as evidence of volition? Our experiences give us ample evidence to support the conclusion that we can make choices about descrete actions in every day life that are "higher-level" (i.e. not the choice to focus). We chose to go to work, to flirt with our co-worker, to overeat at lunch, to use the blue pen instead of the red one, etc. These seem like genuine choices to me, not just deterministic responses to some single binary decision made at some point in the past.
Note that I am not arguing that the choice to focus is not fundamental, or that other choices do not depend on the choice to focus. Obviously we wouldn't be able to make other choices without first choosing to be in focus. But does that mean that our other choices are not volitional?
*(note that the answer that I quoted above might be open to the interpretation that "higher level" choices are still volitional in some form (just not "directly"), rather than the interpretation I have attributed to it--I have merely characterized the answer as I understood it, in conjunction with other objectivist answers I have heard. If I have misunderstood the answer, I hope the answerer will clarify what he/she meant.)
[as a secondary "devil's advocate" type question: if focusing determines all other actions, then why is there so much diversity of action? Why don't all people who chose to focus make the same "choices"? How does post-choice-to-focus-determinism account for matters of taste or optional values?]
The question seems to express some uncertainty about the precise relation between focusing and higher level choices, perhaps regarding focusing as akin to flipping a switch. You walk into a room, flip on the light switch, and then go on to whatever other activities you want to do in the room, with the benefit of the light but without having to think about the switch again. The lights simply stay on by themselves, and you remain free to make further volitional choices with the aid of the light, but without having to do anything further about the light switch.
Objectivism seems to endorse the switch analogy in some form, but Objectivist literature also describes in detail what "focusing" refers to. Objectiivism holds that all of man's choices "depend on" the choice to focus. What is the nature of that dependency? Does it mean one "throws a switch" once, and then doesn't need to worry about it any further? Does one "throw the switch" once in one's life, or perhaps once each day (usually shortly after waking up from sleeping), etc.? Objectivism identifies focusing as a continuous cognitive effort, an effort that one must continually exert in order to remain in focus and then perform further (or corollary) actions such as looking at reality and thinking about it. In fact, focusing is inseparable from looking at reality and thinking about it.
The "light switch" analogy is thus a little misleading if taken too literally. Focusing is more like a momentary or pushbutton switch. To keep the lights on, one must keep pressing the switch. It doesn't stay on without cognitive effort.
This, in turn, means that all of man's choices are volitional. Focusing is directly volitional; higher level choices are also volitional in that they involve on-going focusing (or absence of it). One can suspend one's focus and one's thinking at any time simply by relaxing the mental effort and letting one's mind drift haphazardly (not purposefully directed). One can suspend or alter higher level choices at any time simply by going out of focus. If one truly believes that something is the right thing to do, one will be hard-pressed not to do it unless one suspends one's belief. If one is "conflicted" about it, then one's decision to act or not will depend on how one resolves the conflict.
All of man's choices are caused in the sense of depending on whether or not man is in focus; but man's choices are never "determined" by factors beyond his psychological control. When man truly chooses something (i.e., it's not forced on him against his will), he does so either in focus (which may be full focus or partial focus) or not, and the nature of what he decides to do is crucially dependent on the degree to which he chose while in focus.
In OPAR (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand), Leonard Peikoff provides extensive discussion of volition, focusing, and higher level choices in Chapter 2, "Sense Perception and Volition." The caused-determined distinction is discussed directly on pp. 64-65.
The OPAR discussion goes on to deal with numerous other issues related to focusing, such as how one "decides" to focus in the first place, if it is necessarily an unmotivated, undeliberated choice. If focusing is essential for thinking, which is essential for man's survival, what assures that man will focus his mind when he is just waking up from a long interval of sleeping? How or why would he simply "do it" without being prompted in any way? Or is there a prompt, which man is free to follow or ignore? For now, I will leave these further questions about focusing for separate discussion if needed. Those who are interested can find the main Objectivist discussion in OPAR, although it may not answer all of one's questions as definitively as one might want, since Dr. Peikoff had to limit OPAR's many discussions to a small enough volume for general readers to pursue. A broad overview of free will can also be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topics of "Focus," "Free Will," and "Thought/Thinking."
(Regarding "diversity of action" among "people who choose to focus," remember that cognition is an active process involving each observer's specific context of knowledge and circumstances, his vantage point in observing reality, his thinking methods and abilities, etc. Merely focusing one's mind does not predetermine the outcome of a process of observing reality and thinking about it, nor guarantee that one will never commit unintended errors in cognition. Man's cognitive faculty is fallible as well as volitional and contextually oriented.)
The discussion in the comments is becoming a back-and-forth dialog, and my thoughts on the latest comments are extensive enough so that an update to my original answer is probably more appropriate than simply continuing in dialog mode.
The questioner states: "I first make (and maintain) the choice to focus C. I then choose A." This description skips a number of key steps in the process and seems to treat focusing as separate and distinct from the total process. Before one reaches the final choice (and presumably action) of 'A', one needs to look at reality, think about it, identify its relation to oneself, recognize whether or not some kind of action might be needed, if so, why, and what alternative courses of action might be possible, the probable consequences of each, the relative value of each possible outcome to one's life, the respective costs or difficulties of various actions, etc. Focusing is very closely intertwined in one's cognitive processes at every step, always with the ever-present option to drop focus and act (or not) in a state of cognitive drift.
To make the very close connection between focusing and thinking even more clear, the following excerpt from "Focus" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon may be helpful:
In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one's consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality -- or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance simulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make. [From TOE in VOS, Chap. 1]
Reaching 'A' as one's final decision in action is not an automatic consequence of focusing. Processes of thought and evaluation are needed to make a high level choice such as 'A', and those processes do not operate automatically. They begin with focus and build on it, with the ever-present option to drop focus at any time if one so chooses.
Regarding someone else's choice under the same circumstances ('X'), another person won't necessarily reach the same conclusion because his context of previous knowledge and values is likely to be different, as I already explained in an earlier comment,
An earlier comment by the questioner mentioned "volitional in the normal sense (in a sense other than depending on other volitional choices to focus)." What is meant by "normal sense" here? How does it differ from the Objectivist sense, if it does? What I am attempting to summarize is the Objectivist sense. If the question is, "Is a higher level choice volitional or not, yes or no," I would have to say "yes and no"; it's not such a rigidly black-and-white, either-or, all-or-nothing issue. There are a great many antecedent factors that enter into higher level choices, including the fully volitional choice to maintain a state of focus or not. (Objectivism, e.g., OPAR, denies that any such antecedent factors are involved in focusing itself, other than man's completely free action of simply doing it or not.)